WESTERN TREASURE VALLEY — Over the years, we have received phone calls from people in our community who have seen a past article resurface online years later about an arrest for a low-level crime that is still trailing them. Additionally, some people have been initially charged with a crime, but not convicted, but those initial charges also still trail them.
Whenever prospective employers Google their name, the crime is the first thing that comes up. For their friends, neighbors and even children — it’s all there for them to see. Some people have made a small mistake, but they can’t shake it, thanks to our reporting and the internet.
In the old days, your name would appear in print, you’d take your lumps and we’d all move on. Pretty much the only way to access it later was to dig through a newspaper morgue or microfiche at the local library. Not too many people were willing to do that, and soon the story faded.
Things are different today, and that has prompted some thinking in media on two fronts. We’re part of it.
There are two issues at play here — that a story never goes away on the web, and how we approach crime reporting in general.
This week, we launched an initiative called Clean Slate. It’s an appeals process. If you want an online story updated, modified or deleted, fill out a form online and make your case (www.argusobserver.com/cleanslate). There is a place to put the link to the story, any court documents you might have (not required) and plenty of room to talk to us.
If you’re challenging our reporting, you likely won’t get very far. We write most of this off police reports and make no claim other than what we’ve written is “according to the report.”
But we know the article simply represents a snapshot in time — Jane Doe was arrested on suspicion of …” But we rarely follow low-level arrests all the way through the court system. So that snapshot often becomes the last word for our readers — Jane is guilty in their eyes. That’s not fair and it’s not accurate.
Often, charges are reduced or dismissed, and sometimes cases are settled out of court. While it’s accurate that Jane was arrested, we can’t escape the reality that most people think an arrest equates to conviction. And since this is often all we’ll ever read about Jane, the arrest defines her. That’s not right, either.
If you think we’ve gone soft, you don’t know us very well. Clean Slate doesn’t suggest a person didn’t commit a crime and isn’t responsible for their actions. It’s an acknowledgement that information is more readily available today but that at some point a person’s privacy outweighs the news value to the community. Causing harm years down the road is not the intent and serves no purpose.
Following is an example from one of our other newspapers.
A few years ago, a 27-year-old woman visited the editor. When she was 19, she was arrested for prostitution. She was guilty, she told the editor, and her name was in the paper. Eight years later, she had a young son, earned a college degree and was working in the medical field. Her fear? That her son would soon be on the computer and would very likely look up mom’s name. So would his friends.
We’re glad she got her life together, but that isn’t a requirement for Clean Slate. We just don’t see news value eight years after a 19 year old was arrested for prostitution.
We’re rolling out Clean Slate across our company, though we’ve dealt with plenty of cases already where it was thumbs-up as much as thumbs-down.
Who has been told no? A request from a man to remove a story about his reckless decision to sell a bad product that could have harmed his customers. He was fired but was trying to get back into the same line of work and potential employers kept finding the story online. Good. Our work continues to protect that community and it won’t come down.
Our other challenge
The best way to tackle a problem is before it becomes one.
That’s why we’re taking a look at crime coverage. Many of our newspapers get the cop log and reprint it word for word in the paper. The Argus stopped doing that several years ago, but it often included such minor things as your boss ran a stop sign, your Sunday school teacher shoplifted a candy bar (it happens), the neighborhood kids get caught hopping the fence to the public pool in the middle of the night (personally guilty).
Police blotters are great entertainment for a lot of communities (until your name shows up). But that’s not the place to entertain readers — it borders on mean-spirited.
But let’s come back to our original reason for a lot of this — we’ve no intention and don’t have the staff to follow these arrests through the courts, leaving the impression that the accused are guilty.
Big crimes — murder, sexual assault, anything involving public officials, or stupid people hurting others — yes, your name will be in print. It’s a community service.
All the others? Changes are coming.
Let us know what you think; this is an evolving process for us and the media. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.