This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
An unfortunate byproduct of the digital age is that incorrect, incomplete, or misleading journalism now has the power to damage your reputation indefinitely, even if a publisher later absolves you in an update to the original story. In fact, misleading articles can still appear online decades after the fact, often ranking prominently in the search results for your name.
So, what can you do if news articles are hurting your online reputation?
Depending on the specifics of your situation, you may be able to get defamatory articles removed or unpublished by contacting each publisher directly (although this is difficult to do). When a publisher deletes the negative information, Google will automatically stop showing it in your search results.
Another option is to make unflattering or untrue content about you harder to find online.
When newspapers will unpublish articles
Historically, newspapers have been quite hostile to the idea of deleting or removing published articles, although they are sometimes willing to delete defamatory or reputation-damaging statements that readers post in an article’s comments section.
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 continue to top your Google search results.
However, unless you have a court order, news sources will generally avoid removing entire articles, instead preferring to print corrections, retractions, or follow-up pieces. There are some exceptions, though.
Several news outlets, like The Boston Globe and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, are beginning to acknowledge the unchecked power their articles have to alter people’s lives and have established policies to free people from the extrajudicial punishment of a bad online reputation. As such, it’s a good idea to search the websites of news organizations to see if they have a process in place to deal with damaging content.
Reasons that news organizations will or won’t unpublish articles
If the news source that you are dealing with doesn’t have a removal policy, then you might still be able to get the content edited or deleted.
However, this is often hard to do because journalists have tended to view removing published content as destroying “the public record” that they are charged with creating and preserving.
Moreover, there is very little industry consensus as to when the complete unpublishing of an article is justified.
In general, newspapers might consider unpublishing an article when:
- The content is viewed as inaccurate or unfair
- The content contains inflammatory or defamatory language or comments
- The content falls under the jurisdiction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)’s Right To Be Forgotten.
The reasons least likely to get an article unpublished are:
- Source rethinks what they want a wider audience to know about them
- Concerns that the post contains private information
These insights can help you determine the right approach for removing news articles from the web.
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 the article—If you can’t reach this individual, then 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 your request.
- Stay on the phone until you resolve the issue—If the editor requires further documentation, offer to send it by email or regular mail, and then follow up again by phone.
How to file a Right To Be Forgotten request
If you live in an area covered by the GDPR, then you can ask the entity publishing content about you to remove it by filing a Right To Be Forgotten request (PDF). However, doing so is not a guarantee that your content will be removed, as publishers are allowed to refuse requests that they deem to be “in the public interest.”
Under the Right To Be Forgotten, you can also ask Google to remove (de-index) references to content about you in its search results. De-indexing means removing a link from a search engine so that the content is no longer visible in the search results. This means that although the story may still exist, people won’t be able to find the link to click on it.
To submit a Right To Be Forgotten request to Google, use this form.
Be sure to include these things in your request:
- The URL(s) for the content that you want Google to delist.
- An explanation of how the content relates to you and why Google should delist it.
- The search query that brings up the delisted content (i.e., your name or nickname).
- Your email address.
For more information on Google and the Right To Be Forgotten, see this Google support page.
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. Moreover, 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. For example, a blogger may have republished it, or the article may come up in a news archive.
Fortunately, you have several other options for mitigating the reputation damage an online article can cause:
- De-Indexing—In addition to de-indexing content in response to a Right To Be Forgotten request, Google will de-index content that meets certain criteria—such as revealing personally identifiable information, like your name, phone number, or address. Google will also de-index anything that contains nonconsensual explicit images or violates a law. 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 situation.