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Jan. 25, 2021, 2:56 p.m.

Is unpublishing old crime stories Orwellian or empathetic? The Boston Globe is offering past story subjects a “fresh start”

Should the worst moment of your life also be your top Google search result? Your “permanent record” is sometimes more about old news stories than court records, and newspapers are increasingly rethinking their responsibilities.

One impact of the broader Black Lives Matter movement — in particular, its exposure of the deep inequities in the criminal justice system — has been a growing belief that the traditional American treatment of people arrested for or convicted of a crime is both unfair and counterproductive.

You can see it across domains and across the country. For more than a decade, the “Ban the Box” movement has pushed to prevent employers from demanding information about people’s criminal records in their job applications — making it easier for those convicted to get a job that can get them on the right track. In 2018, Floridians voted overwhelmingly to give those convicted of a felony back the right to vote (though Republicans in the state did their best to obstruct it).

A new bill in Oregon would go further and allow the convicted to vote while incarcerated. In Illinois, reformers just passed a bill to end cash bail.

And a new wave of news outlets increasingly let prisoners tell their stories rather than have narratives around criminal justice dominated by prosecutors and police. “Reality” TV franchises like Cops and Live PD — long accused of serving as a PR machine for police — were canceled.

Mainstream journalism has had a lot to think about too. Not that long ago, it wasn’t uncommon for local newspapers to have a dedicated section of their websites devoted to publishing the mugshots of those recently arrested — a sort of clickbait eternal perp walk through your neighborhood. Despite a decade-plus of complaints, many of them survived into 2020, when sites like the Houston Chronicle, Tampa Bay Times, Sacramento Bee, and many of the New Gannett papers took them down amid protests.

Now, some are thinking more broadly: Should an arrest years ago continue to haunt someone as they move through their career? What about for people for whom charges were dropped — or who admitted their guilt, did their time, and want to move past their past? Are newspaper websites the mythical “permanent record” where all your misdeeds would be recorded for eternity?

In 2018, we told you about how The Plain Dealer in Cleveland1 was rethinking its practices: reducing its use of mugshots, not naming those arrested for minor crimes, and allowing people to request their information be removed from old stories in some cases. And now the movement is gathering speed.

On Friday, The Boston Globe announced a new program called “Fresh Start: Revisiting the Past for a Better Future”:

Following the nationwide reckoning on racial justice, the Globe is looking inward at its own practices and how they have affected communities of color. As we update how we cover the news, we are also working to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives.

Going forward, the Globe will allow all people to appeal their presence in older stories published on our websites. We’ll consider each case individually and, if warranted, take steps to update the story and protect the privacy of the individual. These steps may include republishing the story with new information or removing the story from Google searches. All final decisions will ultimately come down to the Globe’s editorial discretion.

We are not in the business of rewriting the past, but we don’t want to stand in the way of a regular person’s ability to craft their future. If you’re looking for a Fresh Start, please fill out the form below. We’ll be in touch.

The Globe asks for any documents that might help their decision-making process (like a record of charges being dropped, for instance, though that’s not a requirement) and: “Tell us why you want a fresh start and your information removed from a Globe story. Information you could include: how this story impacted your life, and what has happened to you since it was published.” Globe editors say they reached out to public defenders, victim’s rights advocates, ethics professors, and formerly incarcerated people in shaping their policy.

The policy generated the expected range of opinions, from excitement about helping people move past a conviction to concern that the first draft of history will be revised in uneven and unexpected ways.

Some Globe commenters had thoughts on the matter, both pro and con:

  • The Globe will truly become fake news.
  • 1984 is officially here.
  • This is indeed Orwellian.
  • A lot of people deserve a second chance. It’s hardly Orwellian to believe that the consequences of a single criminal act should not follow a man for a lifetime.
  • Soon we’ll be reading that Trump drove Mary Jo off the Chappaquidick bridge.
  • O.J. Simpson, Heisman trophy winner and actor. End of story.
  • If you had a lapse of judgement ten years ago, would you want to be punished forever because the story is kept alive indefinitely? Try to have some empathy.
  • This sounds like a good idea, so long as it’s done reasonably.
  • Don’t do the crime, if you don’t want to be in the Times.
  • Sure, erase history. Just what a newspaper of record exists to do. Instead of deleting the old story, why not just print a new story showing a later acquittal, good behavior, or success after failure (if they’ve occurred).

But two of the comments really stood out to me. (I’ve lightly edited them for typos and such.)

I welcome this development. I have personally suffered and am still suffering the effects of mistakes I made due to a psychotic episode from years ago. I have had the arrest records sealed, which is not the same as expungement, but I was not convicted. I had to agree to a pretrial period of treatment, and after a year, the case was dismissed. I paid an attorney $500 to help me seal my record even though my only source of income is SSDI…

I have so much working against me, but most of all, it is the arrest report that appears in my local online paper. It also is the brief mention in the paper about the court hearing in which the case was dismissed. I am grateful, however, that the stories did not mention that I was evaluated for competency to stand trial after the arrest. That would have been a lot worse, to have my mental illness publicly exposed. But there are papers that do disclose this information as well. I have a degree from a very good school, but I am afraid my job prospects are extremely limited due to that story online, even if it was only a misdemeanor.

About 25 years ago, a relative came back with PTSD and physical injuries from serving in the U.S. Army in Bosnia. One night, he got drunk and attacked a bystander, then attacked the police.

Since no one was seriously injured, and most likely because he was a white, middle-class veteran, this one solitary incident was swept under the rug. His name was kept out of the paper and a clerk magistrate dismissed all charges and did that controversial “secret court” thing where they don’t even maintain a record of it. Now he’s a well-respected professional, which would not have been possible had he failed a background check due to ONE isolated incident.

A lot of people deserve a second chance. The consequences of a single criminal act should not ruin a man for a lifetime.

Here are some more details about the Globe’s policy, for any other outlet looking for inspiration. (Their deciding committee will meet monthly; they’ll prioritize older stories; they’ll consider stories that aren’t about a crime but are embarrassing; those who apply will have a background check run.)

The movement appears to be spreading. Just this morning, the Bangor Daily News in Maine announced a similar program (appropriate url: bangordailynews.com/forgetme). Their twist: They won’t actually change the content of old stories, but they’ll block them from Google’s search index — meaning you’ll be able to find them if you search on the newspaper’s website, but not on your friendly neighborhood duopolist.

(Which raises a whole other set of issues, of course. Removing a story from Google also reduces its visibility for any other people mentioned in the story — like, say, a victim — in a way that an edit to remove a name doesn’t.)

Here’s managing editor Dan MacLeod:

Before the internet became the primary path to read Bangor Daily News journalism, it was pretty easy for people accused of crimes to be forgotten. The story was out there for a day or two, then the reader tossed the newspaper in a woodstove or recycling bin. End of story. If you wanted to dig up something from the past, you had to go to the library and scroll through microfiche.

Now, because of the overwhelming dominance of Google, past mistakes and transgressions live forever. Yet when story subjects would ask for us to take them down, we, like most newsrooms, declined. After all, we are in the publishing business. Why would we ever unpublish something? It runs counter to our core mission of informing the public and creating the first draft of history.

The fact is, news organizations have vast troves of archive content and high rankings on Google. So whether we recognized it or not, we played a role in holding back those who tried to move on from their mistakes.

I hope you got a chance to see our Predictions for Journalism 2021 package, which ran in December and features a ton of interesting ideas about where the news is headed this year. Of the 157 (!) pieces we published, the most popular in terms of traffic was Ben Collins’ uber-timely one on the reclamation of “accidental conspiracists” who’ve fallen into the web of QAnon and its ilk.

But coming in at No. 2 was this piece by Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli with a provocative headline: Defund the crime beat.

The whole process of how the criminal–legal system is covered needs to be reexamined — from who sets the news agenda, to who determines what’s newsworthy, to whose voices are centered in coverage and which relationships are prioritized. We need beats that focus on communities impacted by systemic marginalization and keep people safe and healthy. And we need beats that help people navigate the criminal-legal system, access important social services, and better understand their rights…

The sooner journalists acknowledge that the crime beat needs to go, the sooner we can acknowledge and repair past harms, reimagine how newsrooms approach their coverage of the criminal-legal and carceral systems, and move in solidarity with communities whose perspectives and experiences have been excluded from local news.

What the Globe and others are doing certainly falls short of what Chappell and Rispoli are calling for. But it is evidence that the winds are blowing in their direction.

  1. Technically, it was Cleveland.com — which is the website that publishes Plain Dealer stories — not The Plain Dealer. But after they killed off the entire (union) Plain Dealer newsroom and replacing them with (non-union) dot-com employees, I’m even less willing than I used to be to go along with that bogus charade. ↩︎
POSTED     Jan. 25, 2021, 2:56 p.m.
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