The inquiry came via Fresh Start, a program that the Globe launched in January seeking input from people mentioned in long-ago articles. The initiative, said the Globe, was an attempt “to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives.”
The 10-person Fresh Start committee acted favorably on the request, says Tuohey.
The long-term impact of petty-crime coverage flashed into the media-news realm this week, as the Associated Press announced some directives of its own on this front. No longer would the wire service publish names in minor crime stories, “which we sometimes cover and pick up from member news organizations as one-off briefs because they are ‘odd’ and of interest to our customers,” writes John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards.
The point here is that AP’s version of News of the Weird doesn’t benefit from naming suspects. “Usually, we don’t follow up with coverage about the outcome of the cases. We may not know if the charges were later dropped or reduced, as they often are, or if the suspect was later acquitted,” writes Daniszewski.
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Daniszewski said the issue has been troubling the AP for several years. “In journalism, one of our principles is not to create harm unnecessarily,” he says. In discussions on the changes, Daniszewski said AP staffers noted that people of color suffer “disproportionately” from the long tail of these stories.
A consensus appears to be emerging among newspaper publishers that crime coverage and its stickiness in a search-engine world need a systemic update. “We could be and probably have at times been perpetuating stereotypes or creating stigmas,” says Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of Gannett’s USA Today Network, whose sites bailed on mugshot galleries starting in 2018 and scaled back small-crime coverage. “I think it is really important that we step back and be less reflexive and be more enterprising in our approach to this coverage.”
As our Post colleague Radley Balko has documented, evidence that the U.S. criminal justice system is racist isn’t just convincing; it’s “overwhelming.” The scourge is present across the system — all the way from jury selection to solitary confinement to police shootings of unarmed Black people. That parlous reality sets up a challenge for journalists: If they over-rely on the official line in their work, they risk swallowing at least some of its biases.
Whether or not that dynamic has prompted the push, newsrooms are taking a dive into their archives and reexamining their coverage. Some examples:
- Washington Post Managing Editor Tracy Grant has convened a newsroom group to consider “take down” requests along the lines of the Globe’s ongoing Fresh Start program.
- In addition to its Fresh Start initiative, the Globe has made a “conscious effort to dial back petty crime coverage and naming people in petty crime stories,” says Globe editor Brian McGrory. The newspaper hasn’t, however, banned the naming of suspects in such stories.
- McClatchy, which runs media outlets in 30 U.S. markets, launched a pilot project in April named Clean Slate to “create an opportunity to review and remove old stories about arrests for minor crimes or early coverage of cases that went nowhere but whose digital life is holding people back,” wrote Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s senior vice president of news, in an April memo to staff.
- In 2018, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer started offering readers a form soliciting input from readers on archival stories that they’d like amended or erased, as NPR’s Claire Miller and David Folkenflik reported earlier this year.
Eagerness to jump into the archives and change or delete years-old stories is uneven across the industry. At the AP, for instance, Daniszewski says there’s “a strong ethos ... that the news report is the news report, and we don’t want to erase history or rewrite history.” That said, the wire service is discussing ways to prevent harmful, old stories with little contemporary news value from popping up in search engines.
And at the USA Today Network, there’s also a presumption favoring the inviolability of published work, though the company does evaluate take-down requests on a case-by-case basis. “We obviously stand by our coverage and we believe what we published to be factually true, so there have to be some extenuating circumstances for us to take down” stories, Wadsworth says.
However, the USA Today Network — which consists of more than 250 news sites in 46 states — has plowed considerable energy into its ongoing crime coverage. Two years ago, the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y., completed an audit of its crime coverage and found that it was “overweighted,” as Michael Kilian, the newspaper’s executive editor, put it. “Looking just at our most diverse ZIP codes, it was even more skewed,” Kilian says. “Like most local media, we were perpetuating stereotypes because of a singular focus on crime in our most diverse neighborhoods.”
“We want to differentiate ourselves from television,” says Hollis R. Towns, the USA Today Network’s vice president of local news initiatives and regional editor. “We’ve all heard the phrase, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’” The over-emphasis on crime coverage, says Towns, wasn’t unique to Rochester; it also showed up in other parts of the USA Today Network’s Atlantic region. “Rochester was the springboard for an overarching company-wide effort to reimagine our police coverage,” Towns says. Training in the new approach is now wrapping up across the company.
A big part of the re-imagination involves junking reliance on police sources as the sole basis for crime updates. “The days of taking a press release and running it are behind us,” says Wadsworth.
Raising questions, Kilian says, is just what Dan Copp, a reporter at a USA Today Network site in Louisiana, did after learning of a late May arrest by deputies in Assumption Parish. Instead of writing a story straight from police accounts, Copp spent several days reporting on the incident, allowing him to address allegations from the suspect’s family that officials used excessive force.
The people who get mentioned in coverage aren’t necessarily the same people who buy newspaper subscriptions — a consideration that the Globe took into account in promoting its Fresh Start program. The newspaper contacted communities beyond the Globe’s readership base to solicit concerns about stories in the newspaper’s archives, according to Tuohey. The effort generated about 60 reviewable requests — a manageable number for the Globe. The Globe’s form for submitting requests asks for the person’s race (an optional field), but the newspaper is not releasing that information while many cases remain under review.
The newspaper’s foray into archival revision, however, has shown that not all concerns relate to crime. Two people, says Tuohey, complained about a Globe series on blind dates. “Whenever you Google me, they want to know how the date went,” says Tuohey, paraphrasing one man’s gripe. The committee approved the requested action in both cases.