“Our journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle for someone’s future, especially not in cases where a minor crime, transgression, or embarrassing moment follows them at the top of a Google search result forever,” said Jason Tuohey, the Globe’s managing editor for digital.
The initiative comes out of a reexamination at the Globe and many other newsrooms about how they cover race, prompted by last year’s nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Journalists have increasingly questioned their reliance on police as primary sources after Floyd’s death. A recording of his killing by a bystander contradicted the initial police account.
In the past few months, the Kansas City Star and the Los Angeles Times have apologized for how they covered local communities of color over the years, and both newspapers have published pieces explaining how their reporting contributed to racial inequities. In Philadelphia, 40 community organizations petitioned the Philadelphia Inquirer to change its crime reporting process and allow people named in older crime stories to appeal to have them removed from the paper’s website.
The idea of removing names — let alone an entire article — from a newspaper’s digital archive is traditionally anathema for many journalists. “For a long time the instinct was, ‘Nope, we're not even going to think about this. We are about seeking the truth and reporting it and we don’t go back and unreport it,’ ” said Kathleen Culver, the James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
But Culver argued that changing or delisting old stories falls squarely within journalists’ responsibility to hold powerful institutions accountable. “You don’t want to extend the harm of an unjust system by having your coverage be unjust,” she said.
Other newsrooms have embarked on the same path.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution considers requests to remove or update online content from people whose records have been closed to the public under a 2013 state law as part of an effort to make expungement easier.
In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer launched its Right to Be Forgotten process two years ago as a way for people to have old stories and mug shots removed or amended. Editor Chris Quinn recalled receiving notes from people who had been on drugs when their mug shots were taken — and subsequently published as a permanent reminder of that low point in their lives. “Some are working as drug counselors, and this is still out there,” he said. “It is mortifying to them.”
The Plain Dealer is now trying to remove problematic content even before someone petitions them to do so. Google awarded the paper a $200,000 grant in December to develop digital tools to help them identify those stories and photos.
The Globe said it won’t accept petitions from companies, government agencies or lawyers on behalf of clients for its Fresh Start program. And it is planning to spread the word through community outreach. “We’re very mindful that some of the people we want to reach may not necessarily be regular Globe readers, so we are providing opportunities for people to ask questions and submit feedback,” Tuohey said.
A committee of 10 Globe journalists — who consulted with victims advocates, ethics experts and formerly incarcerated people to design the program — will review petitions from past story subjects. They will consider all cases but will apply a much higher standard for ones involving public figures.
Rectifying past wrongs can prove complicated, however. For example, should a newsroom alter its coverage of a police officer who was charged with improper use of force but was subsequently acquitted?
And then there’s the time and effort required to comb through decades-old archives and essentially re-report problematic stories. “Every newsroom that does this fears how much of a resource suck this will be,” Quinn said.
But many journalists say it’s a worthy, and overdue, undertaking.
“This is really about examining [journalism] conventions, and seeing when they are just conventions that have been adopted without thought and are actually harmful, and when they are conveying relevant and useful information,” said Susan Chira, editor of the Marshall Project, which covers the criminal justice system. “It’s a welcome reexamination.”