By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor
Deborah Dwyer is a former reporter and communications professional in her home state, Tennessee, who’s now a Ph.D candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her newlywed husband is in Durham, but she’s temporarily living in Columbia, MO, as a 2020-2021 Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow, studying the “ethics and practicalities of unpublishing” — the focus of her research at UNC.
Her mission and passion are to create tools and collect best practices to make unpublishing — removing old factual content, by request, to restore the subject’s reputation — more manageable and fair.
In the digital age, crime reporting means that some people who make minor mistakes, or have their charges dropped or reduced, or who redeem themselves, or who might be found innocent, can still be forever “guilty by Google,” as Dwyer puts it.
But there are many arguments against unpublishing: Factual reporting is an accurate reflection of history. Information that was true when it was reported should not be removed or altered. Doing so can erode trust with the audiience, and arbitrarily alter our only record of past events. And there are alternatives, such as addendums that update and/or clarify; writing and linking to a follow-up story that updates the reporting; or removing the story from a search engine’s cache but preserving it.
I talked with Dwyer to find out more about the challenges and possible solutions. Her key points are distilled in my NC Local newsletter of Feb. 10, 2021; a fuller account of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.