No, it wasn’t a satirical headline on the Onion. It was an article published on the health section of CNN.com. The piece, posted Wednesday by Elizabeth Landau, summarized unpublished research about the effects of women’s ovulation cycles on their voting habits. The overall thesis seemed to be that ovulating women feel sexier and are therefore more likely to vote liberal.
Response to the article on Twitter was overwhelming, and not in a good way. (“Is it 1950?” one woman tweeted.) And within hours, CNN had yanked the embarrassing piece and replaced it with the following comment:
“A post previously published in this space regarding a study about how hormones may influence voting choices has been removed. After further review it was determined that some elements of the story did not meet the editorial standards of CNN.”
In a later statement, CNN further explained its decision to unpublish the story, stating that the piece managed to make its way onto the website without being vetted by a senior editor, which it said is its normal procedure. A CNN source told the Washington Post that the article was determined to be in “poor taste.”
Landau, for her part, explained via Twitter that she was just reporting on the study, pointing to the fact that the article included sources who were skeptical of the research.
CNN’s decision to unpublish the story points to what appears to be a growing divide in the media industry as it grapples with journalistic ethics in the age of the Internet. When is it okay for a news outlet to unpublish a story? The time when news archives were quietly tucked away on microfilm has long since passed. Today journalists -- and quoted sources, for that matter -- face a reality in which every imprudent word, once published, is just a Google search away, accessible to potential employers, business partners and anyone else.
It should come as no surprise, consequently, that unpublishing requests are on the rise, as Dan Watson, editor of USC Annenberg’s student-run Neon Tommy website, reported in the Columbia Journalism Review in August. Watson recalled an incident in which a laid-off woman believed that an old Neon Tommy article -- one that mentioned her job troubles -- was now hurting her current chances of finding employment. After she requested to have the piece taken down, Watson discovered that Neon Tommy newsroom has no official unpublish policy. Ultimately, however, he and his colleagues chose not to take the article down.
And they’re not alone. Watson goes on to cite a 2009 report by Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star. English polled more than 100 editors to find that most refuse to take down a story simply because a source regrets what he or she said.
But as the CNN incident demonstrates, news organizations do not always hold themselves to the same standard. When it was CNN, and not one of its sources, that regretted what it said, the company wasted no time in trying to pretend the whole thing never happened.
Not that it was very successful. As Poynter’s Julie Moos pointed out, quashing information online is not as simple as deleting a single blog post. Other websites -- including the Daily Kos and Austinist -- have taken it upon themselves to repost the hormones story in its entirety, with Kos associate editor Kaili Joy Gray even tweeting the highlights.
So if unpublishing is not the ideal decision, what are the alternatives? Kelly McBride, who writes about media ethics, posed this very question for a Wednesday live chat on the Poynter website. Speaking about the publish/unpublish dilemma, McBride summed it up as a question of trust. The biggest problem with unpublishing, she wrote, is that it undermines credibility, leaving readers less likely to trust what a news outlet publishes in the future.
“Because of that unpublishing should be rare, only in extreme cases,” McBride added. “And it should happen with a big apology and explanation.”
This is clearly a discussion that journalists will continue to have, at least until technology fails us and the grid collapses.
You can view McBride’s full live chat here.