Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 20, 2008, 2:13 p.m.

Anonymity after the fact

Siobhain Butterworth, The Guardian’s ombudsman, writes about changing the content of past newspaper stories to please readers. When a news story’s life-after-publication was limited to dusty library stacks, an embarrassing anecdote could go safely unnoticed. But when it falls within the searching power of Google, it takes on a life of its own.

Butterworth writes about three people who had revealed their long-ago criminal acts for the newspaper, either in a blog post written for the paper or in the course of an interview with a reporter. All three had second thoughts after publication. The Guardian agreed, in each case, to change the person’s name to a pseudonym:

The established view is that a newspaper’s online archive is a historical record and that there is therefore a strong public interest in maintaining its wholeness, unless deletions or amendments are strictly necessary…It’s impossible to come up with rigid criteria, and decisions made on a case-by-case basis produce inconsistencies. Saying yes to all requests for the removal of material that causes the people concerned distress or hinders their employment prospects would be easier, but it’s a solution that, over time, will leave a patchy and unreliable record of what was published…A less extreme solution, which was adopted in the three cases mentioned earlier, is to replace a real name with a pseudonym and add a footnote explaining that the change has been made. It’s not ideal, but it’s preferable to re-writing history completely by deleting an article, blog post or letter and pretending that it didn’t exist.

I’ve had people email me, years after being mentioned on my personal blog, and asked to be anonymized or removed from the archives. In a couple of cases, I’ve done it. But a personal blog is not the same, of course, as The Guardian’s archives. Do you think The Guardian made the right call?

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Oct. 20, 2008, 2:13 p.m.
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