What do you do with a writer’s work if they screw up?

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what…

TechCrunch terminated an intern who accepted compensation from an outside company in exchange for coverage. The announcement strikes an appropriate tone, but it also includes a passage that ties into a much bigger issue: when a writer goes rogue, what do you do with their published work? Here’s how TechCrunch responded:

This was not one of our full time writers, and so the frequency of posts was light. Nevertheless, we’ve also deleted all content created by this person on our blogs. We are fairly certain that most of the posts weren’t tainted in any way, but to be sure we’ve removed every word written by this person on the TechCrunch network.

One big caveat: the intern in question is a minor, so that certainly takes precedence in any reaction. But the intern posted his own follow up. Privacy implications are moot at this point.

And that brings me back to the bigger issue …

In situations like these, if we assume the wayward writer is an adult, and we assume there are no broader legal issues at play, should the writer’s past work be stricken from the record? Is that the right response?

I don’t think so. An enterprising snoop could mine caches and old RSS feeds for past copies, so deletion isn’t really the Draconian measure it’s intended to be. Beyond that, the cat’s already out of the bag. The writer screwed up. The publishing outlet looks bad. And any move to wipe the slate clean will leave lasting residue. So why wipe it clean at all?

In situations where the wrongdoing is already public — whether announced by the publisher or dug up by someone else — what I’d prefer to see is a prominent editor’s note placed at the very top of every piece the writer ever posted on the publisher’s site. It could be a simple link to the termination announcement. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. The New York Times used a similar tactic with Jayson Blair’s articles.

Advertising should be stripped from these pages and comments closed. That’s appropriate — this isn’t a revenue or publicity opportunity. But it’s important to keep the original material in place. The mistake happened in the public sphere. You can’t take that back, but you can be up front about it both in the near-term and down the road.