Annenberg Media introduces new policy for revisiting published stories

People appearing in Annenberg Media journalism can now request editorial review.

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Annenberg Media reporters have been on the frontlines of stories ranging from wildfires to California shootings to community events. As a student newsroom that is also a classroom, we take pride in being the next generation of industry journalists and professionals. At a university like USC, we’ve had our fair share of scandal and sensitive headlines that have stretched beyond the scope of our campus. Our reporters are often the first to report on these events.

The leadership team at Annenberg Media continually works to critically evaluate our coverage and find ways that allow us to best serve our communities.

Content coming out of this student newsroom/classroom is not made with malicious intent. However, there have been instances where situations change and sources no longer align with the work we have published. All Annenberg Media content is done by students, learning and growing in an industry that is constantly evolving.

Recently, we received a request from a survivor of sexual assault asking that we take down an article featuring her story, along with her name and photo. This particular story was removed from, even though newsroom policy at the time was not to delete published material.

There have been rare circumstances over Annenberg Media’s more than 5-year history where such removals or deletions took place. In one, a student was named as being undocumented when she had not given the journalist permission to do — she was removed from the story entirely.

In another, a student who was critical of China on video was not aware his Chinese name would be used in the story and a review revealed the student wasn’t clear that his name and face would appear on YouTube. The video was deleted.

There also have been situations where an alum Googles themself. An Annenberg Media story focusing on something that might have seemed clever at the time but now could be embarrassing or even harmful to a job search or their well-being is the first result. Before this policy, that student would have to individually attempt to seek out the student newsroom to make their case, and the policy was strict about no alterations to published work. Now, they have the opportunity to request student leaders review the story.

The sexual assault survivor went through this process. After review, her story has now been republished with an editor’s note offering transparency about what happened. This sparked a larger internal conversation about Annenberg Media’s work and the measures we could take to ensure that our reporting follows guidance by the Society of Professional Journalists to minimize harm to our community.

The newsroom’s top leaders had an honest conversation about when articles should be altered, edited or even removed. After years of Annenberg Media’s coverage of USC scandals, crimes and abuses against its student body, there are plenty of people — including the survivor who reached out to us — featured in stories about sensitive topics. While we historically have not had a policy in place to address these requests, we have come to the realization there is a need for one to exist so we can offer a course of action for those who ask.

The Fall 2021 Annenberg Media Equity Board and the Executive Editors — Steven Vargas, Pauline Woodley, Daniel Hahm and Jessica Doherty — came together to discuss how sensitive articles could potentially be altered in order to better serve survivors and our community at large.

The purpose of the initiative is to minimize harm to those who choose to share their stories with us as journalists. By enacting this new policy, we are in no way looking to undermine our journalistic integrity. In fact, we hope that the policy will do the opposite. Throughout the process, the Equity Board and top newsroom leaders will be mediating what changes must be made to protect the privacy of people who may have been hurt through our reporting. We think it’s important to state that we stand by the reporting of our journalists. However, we also understand the importance of revisiting our work, by adding updated context and allowing those portrayed to request changes that would allow them to move past the story and not let it define them.

Our new policy pulls from the efforts of The Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start initiative.” The Globe’s policy specifically addresses past crime reporting and allows people named in stories to petition the paper to alter stories about them, providing them a fresh start where their past indiscretions will not taint their futures. In a similar approach, we will allow people named in our stories to request a fresh start of their own where coverage of their past will no longer follow them. Our policy is specific to USC Annenberg Media and spans from coverage of sexual assault to discrimination. We do this because we know we are not perfect and things change. Our previous reporting may have harmed people and we want to address it.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics states that “ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” It is our duty and responsibility as journalists to protect the well-being of those we cover. As times change, the internet evolves and USC news grows, we will continue to adapt and keep our readers and sources informed.

Further explanation of the policy and a list of frequently asked questions can be found here.

How do I submit an appeal?

Those seeking to have their names or photographs removed from Annenberg Media journalism can fill out the appeal form. Equity Board members will be screening requests. If approved for action, the Equity Board and Executive Editors will schedule in-person meetings or Zoom interviews to verify your identity and discuss next steps.