Peterson: The right to be forgotten
The internet never forgets. That maxim is too often reinforced in our newsroom each time someone emails or calls with an appeal to have a name removed or a mug shot pulled from an old story that continues to follow them around as they try to move on with their lives.
For the past couple of months, we’ve been having high-level discussions as a newspaper group about the right to be forgotten — a movement that started in Europe and has begun to gain traction in newsrooms across the United States.
The focus of our discussions has centered on this question: How long should you be penalized for minor crimes you committed years ago?
Basically, should you have the right to be forgotten by Google when those old stories are blocking you from landing jobs? How long should you have to pay for an old mistake?
Trust us, for editors who take very seriously the role of leading the papers of record in each market, it goes against instinct to go back and rewrite that record. We’re in the business of getting it right and standing by the reporting we do. Reporting on crime, especially violent crimes and sexual assaults and rapes, is also one of the core tenets of community journalism.
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That said, we can’t ignore this truth: While we live in the day-to-day world of reporting on our communities, one story deemed worthy for that day’s paper lives on in perpetuity for the charged and/or convicted long after that person has paid their debt to society.
So, we’re launching a new process across Colorado Mountain News Media’s chain of papers in which people can request to have their names removed from old stories. And we’re leaning on a model that has been established at other news organizations for making those decisions.
That process starts with the admission that, as journalists, we’re not in the position to judge who gets clemency and who doesn’t. That’s why we will rely on the courts and the legal process that people use to clear their records: expungement.
People who have committed non-violent crimes who successfully petition the courts to permanently delete records of their criminal cases will be able to send us a request. After filling out a form we’ve created, along with proof of the expungement, we will, in most cases, remove names and photos from stories on our websites.
Who doesn’t get clemency? Well, for one, elected officials and other notable community leaders or public figures.
The emphasis with this policy is on victimless crimes. We won’t be removing names from stories about violent crimes or sex crimes or major felony cases that drew considerable community interest. It’s also not a black-or-white policy, and there may be other reasons that the editor in a specific market decides to preserve a story, despite an appeal from someone who’s had their record expunged. We still reserve the right to publish or not publish.
To go along with this new initiative, we’re also having a company-wide conversation about best practices for crime reporting going forward, which includes limiting use of mug shots to high-profile cases and eliminating the arbitrary nature of just scouring the courts and arrest logs for something that can fill a news hole. Instead, we’ll only be reporting on arrests in serious crimes like murder, attempted murder, drug distribution, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping or crimes involving a high-profile person. For lesser crimes, names will be withheld unless the accused have been formerly charged.
Going forward, we will also only commit reporting resources to following a case through to its disposition if the accused’s name is published.
We will stop naming most people accused of most minor crimes and, as a general practice, we will effort to get our own photos of an accused criminal at a court appearance rather than relying on mug shots.
As we launch this initiative, we’re certain that we’ll run into questions we don’t have answers to right away. There will be cases that will certainly test the spirit of this new policy and will spark heated conversations. We don’t know exactly what to expect.
But we are committed to changing the status quo and taking a more humane, logical approach to how we cover crime and how we assess requests to rewrite the record.
To submit a request to have your name and/or photo removed from a story, please go to https://www.vaildaily.com/submit-a-request-to-update-a-crime-story/. You can also begin the process of expungement by finding information and the necessary forms at: https://www.courts.state.co.us/.
Nate Peterson is the editor of the Vail Daily. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.