The story was old, it was a simple request, and they didn’t think it would matter.
But when student editors at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles reflected further on the request from a former student to change her name in an online story, they discovered the request was anything but simple.Editors for the Boiling Point changed the name in the story, and in doing so realized they took an action they said misled readers and undermined credibility.
In the frontier of digital media, it can be tough to apply old policies to new situations. That’s why now is a perfect time to think about developing a policy — before you get a request that forces a hasty decision under pressure.
Alexa Fishman, editor-in-chief for the Boiling Point, said the editorial board didn’t feel great about that situation, and they wanted to protect the publication’s integrity.
“We didn’t want something like this to happen again,” Fishman said, “so we clarified the policy for our readers.” The Boiling Point’s policy is published, and every source is notified that stories won’t be changed unless new facts are discovered.
That notification helps sources be aware when they speak with reporters. “We wanted to be sensitive to the issue because I’m sure we’ve all said something that we would regret,” Fishman said.
Sources can’t simply hide behind anonymity, either. These student journalists want their sources on the record.
“If we write ‘Names have been changed,’ it gives our stories less accuracy,” Goldie Fields, executive editor, said. “It won’t give us the credibility that we want.”
The Boiling Point staff considered removing the story entirely but decided against it because the story was so good. Unpublishing a story doesn’t mean it never existed. Search engines may retain a link or text for a period of time.
The goal from this executive board is transparency and advance awareness. They suggest other staffs learn from their situation and be proactive.
“Make a policy before you have an issue, before you have to confront it,” Margo Feuer, managing editor, said. “That way you can be consistent.”
It’s been a good learning experience for this staff, who said they have not been approached with any more takedown requests.
“If something like this happens again, we’re prepared and know what to do,” Fishman said. “No one can challenge us. The policy is already been published and is in the record.”
Adviser Joelle Keene praised her staff and their willingness to sit down and discuss the issue.
“We thought it was a weird thing that happened here,” Keene said, “but it’s bigger than just us. It’s another thing we got from being involved in scholastic journalism organizations.”
Journalism organizations have resources for staffs looking for guidance on a policy. The Student Press Law Center has published a white paper to assist student journalists with navigating the sometimes-unclear waters regarding these requests. Additionally, the SPLC provides this handy editor’s checklist when working through requests for takedowns.