An unfortunate byproduct of newspapers going digital is that the online reputations of individuals sometimes get tarnished by incorrect, incomplete or misleading journalism that stays on the Web forever. For instance, newspapers often report on prominent arrests, but they don’t always do follow-up stories when the innocence of the accused is proven and the charges are dropped. Sometimes, misleading articles appear decades after the fact, ranking prominently in search results because a news archive has been recently digitized.
So what can you do if news articles are hurting your online reputation? Depending on the specifics of the situation, you may be able to get the article removed or unpublished. As Google advises, you need to contact the publisher directly. Getting a newspaper to remove defamatory information is possible (though not easy), and when that information is deleted, Google will automatically stop showing it in search results. Failing that approach, there are also tactics you can use to decrease the visibility of misleading news articles online.
When newspapers will unpublish articles
Newspapers are an important historical resource, and they’re proud of this fact. They’re generally quite hostile to the idea of deleting or removing published articles, although they are usually willing to delete defamatory or reputation-damaging comments that readers have posted to an article.
In some cases, judges have ordered newspapers to expunge news reporting in cases where the criminal record has also been expunged. Obviously, it’s not very useful to have your criminal record cleared when the original charges top your Google search results. But unless you have a court order, news publications will generally avoid removing entire articles, instead preferring to print corrections, retractions or follow-up pieces. There are some exceptions, however.
Reasons that news organizations will or won’t unpublish articles
Of course, sometimes a correction isn’t enough, but there is very little industry consensus as to when the complete unpublishing of an article is justified. In 2009, Kathy English of the Toronto Star released an in-depth study on the issue: ”The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or Not to Unpublish.“ Almost 80 percent of editors surveyed said they had deleted articles in the past, but their reasons varied widely, so it’s a good idea to read this report before you approach any newspaper with an unpublishing request.
The top two reasons newspapers have deleted articles, according to English’s study, were:
- The content is viewed as inaccurate or unfair: 67% of respondents
- Inflammatory or defamatory language or comments: 48.7% of respondents
The reasons least likely to get an article unpublished were as follows:
- Source rethinks what they want a wider audience to know about them: 0.0% of respondents
- Concerns that the post contains private information: 10.4% of respondents
These insights can help you determine the right approach for how to remove news articles from the Web and protect your online reputation.
How to contact a news source about a removal request
Once you have determined that you have a good reason for getting an article removed or altered, follow these steps:
- Find out who was in charge of publishing the article. Generally, this is the editor, managing editor, or newsroom manager, but titles vary from publication to publication. If you can’t find this information online, call the organization.
- Contact the newspaper by phone, and talk to the person responsible for publishing your article. If you can’t reach him or her, move up the chain of command until you do get to talk to someone. Don’t leave a message. Journalism professionals are extremely busy, and non-urgent voicemails or emails may fall by the wayside.
- When you do reach the right person on the phone, be polite. Editors are used to taking abuse from unhappy readers, so you can’t intimidate them by threatening to sue the publication or by using aggressive language. Instead, try to win them over by clearly stating your case and by providing legitimate reasons for the unpublishing.
- Stay on the phone until you solve the issue. If the editor requires further documentation, offer to send it by email or regular mail, and then follow up again by phone.
What to do if your request is rejected, or if the removal doesn’t help
The hard truth is that most of the time, newspapers will reject your request to have an article unpublished. News organizations’ primary responsibility is to report objectively, not to protect your online reputation, and they themselves may face criticism if they unpublish materials too readily.
Even if you do get your article unpublished, deleted articles can sometimes remain on the internet anyway. A blogger may have republished it, or the article may come up in an internet news archive.
Fortunately, you have several other options for mitigating the reputation damage an online article can cause:
- De-Indexing: De-indexing means removing a link from a search engine that the content is no longer visible in the search results. Although the story still exists, people won’t be able to find the link to click on it. However, the content must meet certain criteria—such as revealing personally identifiable information, containing nonconsensual explicit images, or violating a law—before Google will de-index it. If any of these situations apply, you can report the content using Google’s content removal request form.
- Redaction: It’s worth asking the editor or writer to redact (delete) your name from a story if he or she won’t remove the whole article. While it is rare for an organization to agree to this, it can happen in certain situations—for example, if you are a victim of a crime and the article ranks highly in your search results. Once your name is removed from the article, the content will gradually disappear from the search results for your name.
- Suppression: By far the most effective strategy, suppression involves publishing new, factual, and authoritative content about yourself. This high-quality content tends to rank higher in your search results, thus pushing untrue, misleading, or outdated content off the first page and onto subsequent pages, where few people ever look.
If you have any questions about removing negative articles from the internet, don’t hesitate to give us a call. We are happy to offer free, no-obligation consultations regarding your unique reputation situation.