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Requests to alter online news archives seldom granted

Published: Saturday, Feb. 11 2012 9:22 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — George Park says his career as a school administrator was obliterated the day police met him outside the Carbon School District offices and escorted him to jail one year ago.

Even though all charges related to his former position as Garfield County School District superintendent were dropped, Google and other search engines have kept news stories about that episode from fading into obscurity. Year-old stories about the charges are an easy find on news websites operated by both Salt Lake newspapers and all four of Salt Lake's network TV stations. Some online stories about the charges still feature the stereotypical jail photo where he's holding numbers in front of his chest.

Park said job interview after job interview has gone nowhere, something he blames on the ease with which potential employers find detailed stories about the original charges and that "terrible jail photo" online.

"It doesn't make for a good first impression," he said.

The era of the electronic archive has made historical information much more readily available than it is has ever been. And while newspapers cannot go back and reprint earlier print editions, they and other news outlets can change electronic archives and Web content.

The nagging questions revolve around whether they should, and under what circumstances.

Park took his case to editors at the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune with a direct request: Since the charges were dropped, would they pull the stories from their online archives?

Professional organizations like the Poynter Institute, which provides training resources for journalists, say requests like Park's are common, according to a column written for Poynter by Mallary Jean Tenore. What isn't common is a set policy on how to handle such requests.

The reasons people give for wanting a story pulled from Google's view also include claims that a source was unfair or inaccurate, or that a source later regretted something they said. Writers even ask that stories they wrote for publication be taken offline if they regret something they had written or think it will adversely affect a change in professional pursuits.

The Deseret News pulled the incriminating photo of Park from its deseretnews.com archive and added an editor's note to stories about criminal charges that says "Charges against Mr. Park were subsequently dropped in November 2010."

But the original news stories remain.

"We won't take a story offline. That wouldn't solve the problem," said Deseret News publisher Chris Lee. Lee said there are so many secondary online sources where archived material is kept or referenced that killing a story from the online archive just adds confusion by creating holes in the historical record.

Lee said the best answer to a problem like Park's is a news story detailing the resolution of a case that is then linked to the original story — something the News has done. Short of that, Lee said the News will sometimes annotate the original story with new information if the subject of the story requests it, "with the distinction we will make it very specific to the evidence given."

Tim Fitzpatrick, deputy editor of the Salt Lake Tribune, said the paper receives requests like, "Can't you take down this five-year-old story, I'm trying to get a job?" The Tribune gave Park one concession: "We were willing to make that one adjustment of removing his jailhouse photo since there never was any prosecution," Fitzpatrick said.

As for the written content, "We felt like the story was complete. If that story wasn't complete, we might have written another story to make it complete," he said. "I would say that we do handle each situation on its own merits, but we honestly don't get many people making the request. As time passes, it seems more people come to grips with the long memory of the Internet."

Salt Lake media attorney Jeff Hunt said public policy is served best by keeping an accurate record of what was published in the first instance, then correcting anything that needs to be corrected and associating older archived material with the updated information.

"The problem is you can't un-ring the bell," he said. "It's best not to try to go back in time and pretend that it wasn't published."

Lee suggested the possibility of spotting a secondary problem is another reason to keep all of the stories intact.

If Park was wrongfully accused, for example, what if the individuals involved caused harm to someone else? A pattern like that would be easier to find if all of the stories were searchable.

"Thanks to Google, the public is now aware in case the story points to another problem," Lee said.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com, Twitter: SteveFidel

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