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Oct. 18, 2018, 9:29 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Fewer mugshots, less naming and shaming: How editors in Cleveland are trying to build a more compassionate newsroom

“I didn’t see how we could justify standing on tradition when it was causing that kind of suffering…It really comes down to: How long does somebody have to pay for a mistake?”

When you hear the phrase “right to be forgotten,” you may think of the European Union, where right-to-be-forgotten regulations allow nearly anyone to ask (and sometimes force) Google to take down search results they don’t like. The result is a clash between free speech, the public’s right to know, and privacy. There are legitimate fears that powerful people will be able to force news outlets to take down unflattering stories about them. (As of the start of this year, Google had received almost 34,000 requests from politicians and government agencies.) Critics of the broad European laws fear that nuance will be lost as search engines and news companies rush to comply with takedown requests.

But there’s not always nuanced thought on the other side, either. Does everything really have to be preserved on the internet forever? If you commit a minor, dumb crime when you’re young, is it fair for articles about that crime to pop to the top of the Google results when a prospective employer searches your name — for the rest of your life?

The old American newspaper standard is: Never change anything that’s true; news values come first. But in 2018, it’s clear that standard isn’t exactly working; a brief item on Page A17 in one day’s print newspaper doesn’t have the same sort of impact as a permanent digital record. The stories we choose to cover — the mugshots we choose to run — these are choices, and newsroom policies need the same room for nuance that the EU’s laws do.

“In order to fight for and be listened to when we say ‘This information really matters, it serves a public interest and ought to be preserved,’ we have to show that we recognize that digital technologies have changed the enduring nature of information and that something when published can do harm,” a European journalist pointed out last year in a report on how European newsrooms can protect and preserve their content. “We have to open our minds to the effect that some data is inherently trivial, or harmful, or its usefulness has expired. Now there is a lot of difficult decision-making inside of what I just said, but I think we need to not come across as absolutists.”

Chris Quinn, the editor and president of Ohio, is an excellent example of a journalist who is not an absolutist. “It really comes down to: How long does somebody have to pay for a mistake?” said Quinn, who has worked in newsrooms for over 40 years. He’s now leading the charge to make local newsrooms more compassionate through a unique take on the concept of the right to be forgotten.

Quinn has changed’s policy of automatically using mugshots (“the worst photos people will ever take”) with minor crime stories. It no longer names perpetrators of minor crimes in its stories. (If you’ve been listening to the current season of Serial, you know the criminal justice system in Cleveland is far from a perfectly fair operation.) And now, is launching a coordinated, organized effort to review people’s requests to remove their names from old stories. (Similar efforts have taken place at outlets like the nonprofit New Haven Independent.)

It’s a process that starts from a place of compassion, abandons the idea of doing things just because they’ve always been done that way, and injects nuance throughout a newspaper’s editorial decisions. My conversation with Quinn, lightly condensed and edited, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: How did you get to this point?

Chris Quinn: I was finally disgusted with the status quo. When we first started talking about this in 2014, there seemed to be a lot more resistance. A lot more people [in the newsroom] were vehement that we should adhere to the old newspaper standard where you never change anything [in an article].

But we were hearing from people who clearly were suffering, because this stuff kept coming back to haunt them. We didn’t do anything right away, we continued to talk about it, and the requests increased in number to the point where I didn’t see how we could justify standing on tradition when it was causing that kind of suffering.

[Before the Internet], these stories would go into microfilm; they were findable but it wasn’t that easy. Now, we’re the biggest platform in the state. If we’ve written about you and someone searches your name, whatever we have pops up first, no matter how old it is. I was hearing from more and more people saying it had been years, they’d done everything they could to turn their life around, but this was haunting them. I couldn’t justify it anymore.

We started this back in July: If you were charged with a minor crime — we took out violent crime and some other things — and went to the judge and used the system that the taxpayers pay for to get your record sealed, we would take your name out of the stories. You had to provide the proof [that you’d been to the judge] because once it’s sealed, we can’t see the sealing order.

Probably a half-dozen cases came in. We had been worried we’d be inundated, but we weren’t; it wasn’t overwhelming. In the meantime, as word got around, we stated hearing from people who didn’t really have a way of getting their record sealed. We heard from people who had their charges dropped saying they couldn’t get their record sealed — technically, actually, they can, but we wondered, is that fair? And then we heard from people who hadn’t been to court, but it was other kinds of things.

Owen: You decided to form a committee to handle the right-to-be-forgotten requests. Why?

Quinn: One of our attorneys got a request from a brokerage that got into trouble in 2013 for falsifying records to make it look as if assets were higher than they actually were. Three of the brokers working there got their wrists slapped and licenses suspended, but they weren’t banned, they’re back working. They sent in a note saying that any time you search for us, you get this.

I didn’t want to make that call [alone]. I learned that some colleagues at our sister site,, had created a committee to address this kind of thing, and a committee seemed like a good path. Yesterday, we had our very first meeting.

We considered six different requests. The first one, from the brokerage, was a pretty resounding no. The feeling in this room was that if you were looking to hire this broker, you’d want to know what they did five years ago. That’s not long enough ago to be forgotten. There was another one I was pretty sure was going to be a no — a local businessman who played a pretty key role in a bribery scheme more than 10 years ago now, but it was a big deal and everyone still remembers it. We take a pretty serious view on corruption here, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer that we’re not going to take that out.

Then there was a guy who was charged earlier this year with a crime and the prosecutor went to court to have the charges dropped. The guy basically said he didn’t do it but he can’t get it expunged for awhile, so he’s asking us to either update the story to say he’s not charged and this went away, or to take his name out. We’re going to find out from the prosecutor if they really think he didn’t do it. If they think he didn’t do it, we may take his name out altogether. Otherwise, we’ll do an update at the top of the story.

It really comes down to: How long does somebody have to pay for a mistake?

Owen: How did you decide who should be on the committee?

Quinn: To start, I pulled in a variety of people who I thought would come in with open minds and not be tied to dogmatic tradition. It includes the sports manager, a crime editor, some people like that.

What I’m tempted to do, though: Earlier this year, we added four community members to our editorial board. We had people apply, and about 100 people did. We’re trying to diversify viewpoints and ethnicity. It’s been great, one of the smartest things we ever did; the community members add a great dimension to the discussions we have and have perspectives we don’t.

I think it would be helpful to have a non-journalist or two on the [right-to-be-forgotten] committee. The only thing I worry about is that there are conventions in journalism — I’ve been doing this forty-odd years, I know how important the role [of the newspaper] is to the community, and I want to make sure we do respect some of that.

But what I thought yesterday at the end of our first meeting — especially when it came to the discussion about the broker — is that we might be thinking too much like journalists and not enough like regular people. I was of the mind that the brokerage had done its time, that the people who are working there today are paying for sins of five years ago. But I was the only one in the room who felt that way — it was overwhelmingly in the opposite direction.

I don’t want to bully people, but I want to inject compassion onto the conversation and I wonder, if we bring in a couple of non-journalists, it would help consider more perspectives.

Owen: How often will you hold the committee meetings, and what then is the process of taking this stuff down, or editing it?

Quinn: It’ll depend on how many requests we get. I don’t want these meetings to go on for hours, so when we get up to six, seven, eight requests, we’ll just hold one.

With all the requests we’ve gotten so far, I’ve been able to remove the names and put a note at the top that says that this story has been changed to remove the identity of someone, per our policy, with a link to the column I wrote explaining the policy. But I can easily foresee a situation where we’d have to take the story out all together. For instance, if [the decision about] the brokerage had gone the other way, I don’t know how I could have altered that story in such a way to have it still make sense. Fortunately, I don’t have to because the will of the committee was to keep that story live.

The change on Google usually takes some days. It will still show up in Google’s index at first, but when you click on it you go to a dead link and then, after a few days, it cycles out. We’ve talked about instead delisting the stories from Google. But I’m not comfortable with that, because if I tell you we’re taking this out, so that people can’t find it, and then somebody replaces me down the road and puts it back, I think it’s unfair to the people who have gone to this process. If we’re granting this, I want to make it permanent.

Owen: This mission to get the newsroom to think more compassionately feels as if it fits well with another change you made a few years ago, when you decided to run many fewer mugshots.

Quinn: Yeah. In 2014, I was speaking to a group of nonprofit leaders about our public service work, and at the end, in the questions, one of them asked: Did you ever consider that all the mugshots you run basically reinforce and continue a racial stigma in this town?

It was something I’d never considered. I’d been doing this for damn near 40 years: You walk in and you’re working on a crime story and the minute a mugshot is available, you don’t even think about it, you use it. For the first time in 40 years, someone asked me why, and it was a great question.

I got some people together to debate. And there was debate — there’s always debate about this kind of thing, because people do get hung up on tradition, but nobody could come up with a good reason to do it. The mugshot publication also skews racially in this town because of the kinds of crimes we write about. [Quinn explained in a post in July: “And what does the photo tell you, our audience? You don’t know these people, so what does it matter if you see what they look like? Because many crimes we cover are borne of poverty, which disproportionately involves African Americans, the mug shots are disproportionately of African Americans.”]

Mugshots are the worst photos people will ever take. They’re under stress, they’re often under the influence of some substance, they look their absolute worst. What’s to be gained by running that? It does some damage, because nobody knows who these people are except their close friends and families.

And then — we were talking about relatively minor crimes, and as we were talking about it, the crime manager here wondered why we were naming people in minor crimes at all? If the whole story is about the unique thing that happened, not who did it — like, a guy who hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed through a convenience store window — there’s not a whole lot of argument in favor of naming the person. We decided to cut way back on that.

For violent crimes, we may still use mugshots — murders, things where there is value in knowing what this person looks like in case you see them on the street. What we’d rather do than use a mugshot in those cases, though, is go to court and get a picture of the person on their own in court.

One of the people we heard from, asking for their name to be taken out of a story, was a woman who was driving under the influence of serious drugs, and hit and injured a guy on the side of the road. She was arrested for driving under the influence. When we heard from her, she had turned her life around — she’d gone into rehab, she was now working to help people who had drug problems — but her big thing was the [mugshot] with her hair sticking out in 14 directions. When you searched her name, that’s what you see. She wanted her name out, but really what she wanted was that photo out. It was several years after [the DUI], and you’ve got to feel for that, right?

So we’re using far fewer mugshots, and I don’t think it’s hurt the reporting. There have been some cases where the reporters and editors have to make a judgment call, but we generally err on the side of not using.

Owen: You mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that, when you started discussing these policies a few years back, some people in the newsroom were vehemently against it, but they’ve changed their minds. Why do you think they’ve changed their minds?

Quinn: I think it’s because they’re getting the kinds of requests that I get, from people who really are tormented by it. When you weigh what’s the news value of keeping something up four or five years later, versus what it’s doing to someone’s life now, it’s hard to justify, and I think people are starting to wither under that. Standing on this as the first version of history doesn’t work when somebody is telling you they can’t get a job because five years ago they were drunk and plowed into a building and it happened to be written about.

Owen: Sometimes whether these stories were even covered or not in the first place can feel really random.

Quinn: There was a period from, I believe, 2009 to 2013, when I was still the Plain Dealer metro editor. We had a reporter who was doing blotter-level crime-reporting — people who were arrested for very, very minor stuff were written about in two or three sentences. If you [Google] those names today, they pop up. But if you happened to be arrested for [the same type of] crimes before 2009 or after 2013, your name doesn’t pop up [because the Plain Dealer wasn’t covering crime at that level].

That seemed very unfair. Just because you got arrested in the window where we were chronicling it much more closely, you’re dogged for the rest of your life by that? That also played into our decision on this.

Owen: What has the overall reaction to these policies been?

Quinn: I actually have been surprised at how little blowback I’ve gotten on this. Last week, at the Ohio News Media Association’s convention, there was a discussion about it. Everybody who is in these jobs, I think, has compassion and is a human being.

There are still people in this room, though, who don’t agree with this, who think we’re messing with history. I was talking about this on a radio show here and a guy called in, didn’t identify himself, and was criticizing the policy. I recognized his voice. I said, “Dave?” He was our longtime media attorney.

He’s called me a few times about this, to say that the reason we shouldn’t do this is that it’s important to know the record of police and what they’re doing. If we take things out, it makes it harder for historians and social scientists to come back later and look at how the police operated.

But the truth is, we’re not the official record. While these cases are sealed from the general public, they’re still there for police and for people in academia to study with permission. My argument to him is: We’re not 100 percent. We don’t cover everything that moves; we pick and choose. Because we pick certain things and they’re there forever, they can cause suffering. The official record will still stand.

Photo of rusty I-beams at Cleveland’s Justice Center by Steve Snodgrass used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 18, 2018, 9:29 a.m.
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