Hundreds of times a year, phones ring in newsrooms across the country, college and professional alike, with a variation of: “Your archives are ruining my life!”
With decades-old back editions being digitized into online-searchable form, youthful indiscretions that seemed to have disappeared into obscurity are Googling their way back into view. That arrest for streaking in 1987 may have seemed funny to Delta pledge Edwardson, but is perhaps not as amusing to corporate vice president Edwardson.
At times, editors understandably are tempted (either by genuine sympathy, or by a desire to get off the phone) to agree to pull down stories that are causing grief those who appear in them. Most media outlets, however, maintain a rigid rule against taking history off the record, unless an article is proven to be factually false (and even that often is fixable by a correction).
This week’s discussion surrounding Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker exemplifies how seemingly insignificant articles can take on new life.
Just as Booker was taking the first concrete steps toward launching a campaign for U.S. Senate, his 21-year-old column in The Stanford Daily resurfaced when Daily editors found and redistributed it. In the column, originally published in April 1992 while Booker was a Stanford graduate student, he writes about confronting and overcoming what he admits was his youthful “disgust” with gays:
It was my problem. A problem I dealt with by ceasing to tolerate gays and instead seeking to embrace them. In these efforts I have found another community with which I feel akin and from which I draw strength. The gay people with whom I am close are some of the strongest, most passionate and caring people I know and their demands for justice are no less imperative than those of any other community.
Nothing about what Booker wrote is scandalous — it’s a story about overcoming prejudice — but it’s a revealing part of his personal back-story that, 30 or 40 years ago, would have turned yellow and crumbled in the remotest stacks of Stanford’s library.
You never know when the weird kid emailing you columns from the counter at Dunkin’ Donuts is going to grow up to be Cory Booker — or Chris Coons or Rand Paul — so there may be value in preserving the record.
The SPLC has compiled a guide about the law of online publishing and archiving, which focuses on responding to “takedown” demands from irate sources (and, occasionally, from remorseful sex columnists). There is no uniform right answer about removing or correcting stories in online archives, but it’s part of the “facts of life” conversation that every newsroom should have at the start of every term.