The irishtimes.com archive and Kate Fitzgerald
Journalism is a messy, imperfect trade. In the course of producing a daily newspaper or operating a news website, hundreds of decisions and judgment calls must be made every week. We try very hard to maintain the highest professional standards, to make the right call, to spot the potential pitfalls and to be fair to the people about whom we’re writing. Sometimes we fail. And when we do, we should hold up our hands and acknowledge those failures to our readers. Sometimes these mistakes cause distress to blameless people. And sometimes they can have serious legal and financial consequences for us and for our newspaper.
There has been a lot of highly critical public reaction, particularly on social media platforms, to the events surrounding our re-editing of an article originally published in the Irish Times’s newspaper edition of September 9th, 2011. The article had been published anonymously, but, as revealed in a piece by Peter Murtagh in the Weekend Review of November 26th, its author, Kate Fitzgerald, had taken her own life before it was published. The revelation of Kate’s identity in Peter’s interview with her parents, Tom and Sally Ann, set in motion a train of events: the re-editing of the first article the following Monday following legal advice; a clarification of the reason for that re-editing on Wednesday, and, on Saturday, an apology to Kate Fitzgerald’s former employers, the Communications Clinic, which stated that “significant assertions within the original piece were not factual”.
The Irish Times has been heavily criticised for its role in this sequence of events, most recently and seriously by Tom and Sally Ann Fitzgerald, who have written of “ the insensitivity of the Irish Times and its inability to grasp how its position has compounded our grief, and attempted to stilt the national debate on depression and suicide.”
It is neither appropriate nor possible for me to go into detail on the specific legal issues involved in this case. However, reasonable questions have been asked by readers about our policies on amending or altering the digital archive on irishtimes.com, and I hope I can go some way towards answering those.
Editors at The Irish Times are duty-bound to ensure the work they publish does not expose the newspaper to potential legal hazard. This responsibility does not end at the point of publication; if an error has been made and published, it also applies to the range of online platforms for which we are responsible.
When we make mistakes, we are often required to publish retractions in the Corrections and Clarifications slot on the Opinion page of The Irish Times, usually stating that our original assertions were not correct. Many of our writers have had such corrections published about their work, baldly stating its factual incorrectness, and offering apologies to those affected.
Increasingly, though, those seeking redress from newspapers for perceived misrepresentations, inaccuracies or worse are as interested in the digital record as in the print retraction.. If there’s a serious problem with an article, that problem is arguably being perpetuated by its continued availability to online readers. For publishers, the pressing question becomes whether they are making a bad situation even worse in the eyes of the law by keeping that article available online.
As a result, circumstances regularly arise where the digital record requires amending. Serious errors of fact can and should be corrected. If we have failed to meet our own standards of fairness to everyone involved in a particular story, we should redress that imbalance. When these issues are brought to our attention, we act on them (although we may not do so if the mistake is very minor; each correction takes a certain amount of time to carry out and we have limited resources).
These corrections and amendments are firstly applied to the irishtimes.com archive, which is a digital record of all content published via the newspaper or as breaking news since The Irish Times went online in 1996. This is the format in which most users find and read our archived content. (The archive does not currently include blogs, audio or video, but we hope to include them in the near future.)
When we make a correction, we try to make it as clear as possible to users of irishtimes.com that a post-publication change has been made; for the last two years, we have done so with a line at the bottom of the text indicating that this has happened. Recent events show that we need to be even clearer with that message, always including the date that the change was made, the reason for making the amendment and, where possible, marking the changed text.
The same principles apply to amendments made following legal advice, which would normally be given on the basis that the newspaper and website are unacceptably exposed to a potential risk of action. Such advice is usually but not always given on foot of a complaint from a member of the public. However, we are often limited in the level of information we can give to the user in these cases; to go into detail is often impossible without repeating the information which caused the problem in the first place.
The irishtimes.com archive is just one of the platforms for our content. The newspaper archive is a page-by-page version of all daily newspaper editions published since the foundation of The Irish Times in 1859. Some imperfections and gaps exist, but it’s a pretty complete record of the newspaper’s history. The epaper, the daily digital version of the newspaper, available to subscribers from around 4am every morning, is also based on newspaper pages. In addition to these, we send our articles to a number of syndication and archive services and we supply content feeds on a contractual basis to a number of third-party customers around the world. In all these cases, we’re contractually committed to alerting the parties when any legal issues arise. Similarly, the syndicated services we receive from the Guardian, the New York Times and others have alert systems in place when problems arise at their end.
When we have reason to believe that the newspaper may be at legal risk due to something we’ve published, certain processes kick in. The most straightforward is the editing or correcting of content on irishtimes.com itself. A further decision may be taken to carry out a legal retraction of content from the other services mentioned. This is a more complex process in terms of the number of organisations involved, but for readers it probably seems much blunter as, since the newspaper archive and epaper are based on newspaper pages, the legal retraction takes the form of a redaction or crude blotting out of the relevant article on the page, with the words “Legal Retraction” attached.
In the case of Kate Fitzgerald’s anonymous article of September 9th, following legal advice we were asked to edit it on the afternoon of Monday, November 28th. The original amendment line in the irishtimes.com archive read: ‘’This is an edited version of an Irish Times article originally published on September 9th, 20111″. Following complaints from some users, we re-wrote the line on Wednesday morning to read: “This article was originally published on September 9th in The Irish Times. It was re-edited on November 28th following legal advice.”
The concerns expressed by readers about the clarity of the original notification were justified – although suggestions that we were deliberately trying to conceal the changes were not. Arising from this, we’re now implementing stricter guidelines for making such changes as clear as possible to the user.
On the evening of Friday, December 2nd, we undertook a broader legal retraction across archive, epaper and other services, which took place over that weekend.
Since those events, and the apology to the Communications Clinic published on Saturday, December 3rd, I’ve been reading and sometimes engaging with the angry debate on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere about the rights and wrongs of what was done and what has happened. I and my colleagues, including the editor, Kevin O’Sullivan, have been very aware throughout of the criticism of The Irish Times on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
In my own personal view, as an organisation we can be legitimately criticised for not engaging more openly and immediately with public concerns about our actions. And people are entitled to their opinions about the rights or wrongs of those actions. We are to some degree constrained in what we can write about the details of this case, so it’s understandable if some readers believe we’re being self-serving or narrowly legalistic in responding (or not responding) to questions. Are there things that could or should have been done differently over the past few weeks? Yes. We need to learn from those to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.
However, unfortunate and painful though these events have been, we as professional journalists and publishers took what we believed to be the best action from an ethical and legal perspective. We believe that to have acted otherwise would not have been brave, but irresponsible. We acknowledge the hurt, bewilderment and anger felt by the friends and family of Kate Fitzgerald over what has happened, and apologise for our part in contributing to that.
Hugh Linehan is online editor of The Irish Times