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Monday, August 2, 2010
Ethics Toolbox

Don't delete history

By Andy Schotz

At the intersection of technology and journalism, there’s a debate about fairness, privacy and punishment.

Because of the Internet, news about arrests of people in many of our local communities is permanently and easily available online.

Some people object that stories or cop-log briefs about arrests pop up during Google searches, years after the cases were resolved and the offenders tried to move on. At The Altamont Enterprise, my former weekly newspaper in upstate New York, my friend Melissa Hale-Spencer, the editor, has run headlong into this issue.

For The Enterprise, there’s a twist. Stories from the print edition are posted on the website and the online archives, but not everything in the paper reaches the Web. The weekly list of local arrests, for example, is only available in print.

Melissa told me the newspaper believes it’s important to inform the community of arrests, but that news need not circulate in perpetuity. People with a reason to research old arrests can look through the paper archives at the newspaper office or the public library.

The library puts back editions of the paper on microfilm. Within the past few years, the library digitized its microfilm newspaper archives, then made them available through Internet search engines. The newspaper gave permission but assumed information would be found only through the library’s website, not through Internet searches.

Over the years, many people have begged not to have their arrests printed — some threatened harm — but now people were complaining that their long-ago arrest history could be found electronically. They wanted this old, bad news taken down.

But the newspaper isn’t responsible. The library, which is, has said it will consider removing news about arrests if the complainant proves the court records were sealed. No one has offered such proof, Melissa told me.

Nonetheless, there are intriguing questions here. Should an arrest follow a person forever, perhaps torpedoing a job opportunity? Should news flow to those not looking for it? Conversely, is it wrong to tinker with history?

For those who see validity in both sides of the argument, this is a clash of competing SPJ Code of Ethics principles: “Seek Truth and Report It” vs. “Minimize Harm.”

As a reporter and editor, I’ve heard from many people more upset about their deed being reported in the newspaper than the deed itself or their punishment through the judicial system. Maybe news of arrests is a stigma and makes the lives of those who since have straightened out more difficult.

But I can’t accept deleting the past. Not only is information about most arrests and adjudications public, if it’s already been published, that can’t be undone.

The bigger issue of fairness might be in the uniformity of coverage. Many news organizations don’t consistently follow up on the outcome of arrests, especially when they’re printed as a daily or weekly list supplied by the police.

If that same Internet search produced recaps of both the arrest and the resolution in court, the conversation would be much shorter when people complain.

Recently, someone sent e-mails to an Alaska newspaper, urging the editor to remove news about a years-old driving while intoxicated arrest. I received a copy of the e-mail.

The e-mailer wrote: “I don’t believe that a person should be shamed permanently. I believe there should be a time limit for which these Google links can be maintained, and it likely should not extend beyond the term of punishment rendered to the person by a court of law. My friend’s probation has been served, the large fines paid, and she will have to live with the experience and lesson for the rest of her life.”

This argument reminded me of “practical obscurity,” a concept I learned five years ago while compiling an update on freedom of information cases for the First Amendment Center.

“Practical obscurity” describes how access to public information, namely court records, can be blocked by lagging technology. If courthouse records were computerized and placed online, the public could look at them instantly from home. Instead, courts resist computerization and hunker down behind barriers, limiting access to those who set foot in the courthouse.

If the Alaska newspaper removed the DWI arrest story, presumably it would have to remove every other DWI story. Then, every story about an arrest. The movement might widen — couldn’t anyone who was embarrassed in print for any reason have a legitimate case, too?

Not everyone will be comfortable with news pertaining to them or people they know. Some will be embarrassed. Maybe there’s a legitimate argument for a policy limiting how information can be found, so it requires more than a Google search — especially if there’s no follow-up report on the adjudication.

But if the news is true, and it survived our test of judgment before publication, we must not alter the story or access to it after the fact to suit the subject’s tastes.

Andy Schotz, SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman, is a reporter for The Herald-Mail, a daily newspaper in Hagerstown, Md. He has covered a variety of beats, including city hall and police and courts. Schotz is on the board of SPJ’s Washington, D.C., Pro chapter.

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