The perpetuity of online journalism

A reader offended by obscenities in online comments, a man who shared the name of a former government official and a Christian charity running a home for Aids orphans recently asked for material to be removed from Mail & Guardian‘s website.

In various ways, they illustrated the increasingly complex matter of balancing legitimate individual claims of various kinds against freedom of speech on the ever-present and permanently accessible internet.

The first request was relatively simple and online editors swiftly removed the offending comment from the paper’s Facebook page. It had to do with a report on a Botswana decision to impose a visa requirement on leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The rules for online comments are clear: the newspaper encourages civil discussion, and racist and defamatory material will be removed. Although the odd swear word may be tolerated, “gratuitous profanity won’t do”, the rules say.

The others were more difficult. In one case, a reader wrote to complain about a 2007 report about the former head of a government entity, with whom he shares a name. He argued that he had been prejudiced by the reporting of mismanagement claims against his namesake, apparently also a relative.

Even before considering the request to have the article removed, I had to point out that the coincidence of a common name is not grounds for complaint. In case the issue comes up, it should be relatively easy to point out that the reference is to somebody else. There are probably many cases where people share names with others in the news.

Then there was the case of Bulembu Ministries, which complained about a report on the home for Aids orphans it runs on the site of a disused asbestos mine in Swaziland.

The report raised questions about the health risks arising out of the remaining asbestos fibre in the dumps. The ministry argued levels of fibre were very low, far beneath legal limits, and that the report overstated the risks. Bulembu said it unfairly harmed the reputation of a worthwhile initiative, and might harm its ability to raise funds.

The complaint led to an extensive correspondence as I tried to clarify some aspects. In the end, I believe there are a few aspects where the ministry’s perspective should be added to clarify its position.

But I did not think the report should be removed. There was public interest in the story, and any weaknesses were not fundamental. Instead, some additional points and clarifications have been posted with the online article.

As I pointed out to the ministry, removing a report from the website is an extreme step, and is only appropriate under unusual circumstances.

There are several reasons online publishers are hesitant to take down material. For one thing, it is generally an exercise in futility as it is almost impossible to remove items completely. They live on in search histories and caches, and may have been reproduced elsewhere. Material on the web is forever.

There is also an issue of principle, because a published report becomes part of the public record that should not be lightly tampered with.

Removing an article is a bit like destroying books in a library. It is better to make sure that errors are corrected, so that when the report is found, any corrections of fact or perspective are also immediately available to the reader.

Of course, there are exceptions. There may be cases where the harm caused is so grave that only the complete removal of an article will serve. Even then, though, there should at least be an indication that this has been done.

The real significance of the permanence of online journalism lies elsewhere, I think. It can be very unfair to leave reports open-ended. A report that charges have been laid leaves a particular impression: no smoke without fire, people are likely to say.

If a subsequent acquittal is not also reported, that suspicion can remain in place. And yet journalism online is full of stories that begin but don’t end.

Setting out to track stories to their logical conclusion is easy when it comes to high-profile cases such as that of Shrien Dewani and, in any event, one can rely on the fact that the pack will cover it thoroughly. But there are many others that are harder to track.

If they are lucky, further developments take place on quiet news days, and they can be accommodated by newsrooms that are under increasing pressure.

It’s not really good enough, and yet practical considerations make it all but impossible always to cover stories to completion.

The Mail & Guardian‘s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, email [email protected]. You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message.

  • The name of the reader who shared the name of a government official was removed from the original version of this column, at his request.

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