Editor’s Note: Dan Shearer is the Managing Editor of the Green Valley News-Sun in Green Valley, Arizona and the Editorial Director for Wick Communications, which owns the Anchorage Press.
“This isn’t about rewriting history. (It’s) an acknowledgement that people can move on with their lives and that we don’t want our journalism to become a barrier to that.”
— Jason Tuohey, Boston Globe
The digital age has brought an increase in requests from the public to remove stories from our websites that have proven damaging or embarrassing years after the events. Historically, the answer has been a firm no. But increased conversations in the industry and a notable increase in requests to Wick newsrooms have prompted a hard look at how we’ve addressed these requests in the past and will do so going forward.
EXAMPLES FROM OUR NEWSROOMS
•A Wick paper recently was asked to take down a story from 2016. A man had been convicted of sexual contact with a minor. The family wrote an email to the editor in August 2021, asking that the story be taken down from the website. It read, “My brother pled guilty to this crime, spent time in jail and has been out on probation for several years now. He is going through therapy and has many complications with his life and, understandably, shame associated with his record and actions.” (Request under review.)
•A 27-year-old woman came into a Wick newsroom and spoke to the editor. When she was 19, she was arrested on a prostitution charge. It was reported, and included her name. Since then, she has had a son, now 7, earned a nursing degree and was working at an area hospital. She asked that the story be taken down out of concern her son and his friends would eventually see it. (Request granted.)
•A former high school principal sent a Wick newsroom an email asking that a story be taken down. He had led a failed staff revolt to oust the superintendent. After the newspaper wrote a detailed story on his tactics and motives, his support dried up. Days later, he was fired and escorted off campus. In his request a year later to have the story removed, he said he had sent out 400 resumes with no bites. Google his name and the damning story is at the top of the list. (Request denied; he became a Realtor.)
•A Wick editor was contacted in 2021 by a lawyer representing a man named in a story. The man intentionally sold a bad product that could have harmed consumers. The story content was never challenged; the man was fired from his job. According to his attorney, “He deeply regrets his actions and takes responsibility for the part he played in this matter. He realizes that he made a serious mistake.” The attorney goes on to say, “The continuing online presence of this article is causing Mr. X serious financial and reputational harm. He has been unable to find any meaningful work in his small hometown to support himself due to the negative publicity. He has also been turned down for housing and loans.” (Request denied; Mr. X was attempting to re-enter the same field from which he was fired.)
•We report news; that never changes. We will continue to do our jobs knowing Wick Communications supports earnest efforts driven by honesty, fairness, strong reporting and the public’s right and need to know. That will never change. Doing our jobs with integrity means constantly reviewing how we do them.
•Whether to remove an article pits two contradictory goals — newsworthiness vs. privacy. In most cases, newsworthiness declines as the years go by and privacy rises.
•Ask yourself: Is an online story more harm to the subject than a value to the community? Again, value to the community diminishes with time.
•A story reported in the paper always exists in print. We’re not burning our bound volumes or completely erasing a story. Simply put, we’re not making some stories as widely accessible. Some people move on with their lives after their mistakes and this acknowledges and allows them to do that.
•Some stories should always be accessible online because they serve an ongoing public service even years later. Many of these involve serious crimes, public figures or breaches of the public trust.
We have created an online form that must be filled out for consideration for story removal. It will be easily found on every Wick newspaper website and a brief mention will appear in every print edition, most likely in the staff box. The publisher, editor, Wick editorial director and others, if they choose, will review requests at least monthly, and they have options:
•Let the story stand.
•Remove the article and deindex it from search engines.
•Remove a person’s name and keep the story online.
•Update a story with additional information (example).
Clean Slate request form example (GV News)
RETHINKING COPS AND COURT COVERAGE
The best way to handle a problem is not to let it occur in the first place. “We’ve always done it that way” is a weak news coverage strategy and, going forward, we will challenge that approach. We must make changes to cops and courts coverage.
•Do not print the name of the accused unless it’s a major crime (that’s a judgment call) or has a significant relevance to your community. In many cases, somebody is arrested and we report it. But often, charges are never brought, they’re dropped, they change or a deal is struck. Staffing often prevents us from following up on most initial crime reports (burglary, shoplifting, traffic tickets), leaving a potentially inaccurate account of what happened as the last word on the case.
•Consider dropping coverage altogether of lower-level crimes such as minor shoplifting, petty theft, minor drug cases and traffic tickets unless there is an aggravating factor (somebody was injured or put in harm’s way during the crime; suspect is a public figure; there is a trend, etc.). Police logs shouldn’t be cut and pasted from the police docket into your paper. We should not name those arrested unless the paper intends to follow the case through the court system. This is fair, accurate and thorough reporting, and our readers and the accused deserve that.