Unforgettable Indiscretions: Student newspapers and requests for deleting old stories in the wake of the Boston Globe’s Fresh Start Initiative

In the 15 years or so I advised student newspapers, the most popular feature we produced was the police blotter.

At the Ball State Daily News, the listings appeared under the “Police Beat” title, while UWO’s Advance-Titan went with the more accusatory name of “BUSTED!” In both places, a reporter would go to the campus police station once a week and collect a litany of small crime items that weren’t worth a huge story, but likely held some level of interest to folks.

We tended to have a lot of underage drinking tickets, public intoxication arrests, drug busts and similar consumption concerns. Occasionally, we would end up with a fight, a verbal altercation or a case of vandalism. Anything more serious than that tended to be highlighted and relayed to us by the police department in the form of an alert or a press release.

(The one “BUSTED!” item that sticks in my mind all these years later happened the year before I started advising the paper. A male student and a female student were caught having sex behind the giant concrete UW-Oshkosh sign near the main thoroughfare of campus. When the police “stepped in,” the male begged the cop not to write a report or issue a citation, because then his sexual indiscretion would end up in “BUSTED!” and his girlfriend would find out about it…)

Although these features were popular among our general readers, we found them to be less popular among the people whose names ended up in them. In many cases, we received requests to not publish a particular person’s legal infraction or to remove the reports of them that we had previously printed. At one point, the requests became so popular that the Daily News put the phrase “It’s not our fault you ended up in Police Beat” on the back of the staff T-shirts.

The standing response was that we don’t edit our archives or try to change history. If it happened and we wrote it, it stays put.

Those papers I advised weren’t the only ones to hold that line, as many of student media outlets have policies like this one from the newspaper at Northwest Missouri State University, where my buddy Steve Chappell serves as the adviser:

The Northwest Missourian never knowingly publishes inaccuracies. If any error is found, The Northwest Missourian is obligated to correct the error as soon as possible, regardless of the source of the error. A consistent location, signature and style for corrections and clarifications is recommended.
The Northwest Missourian does not remove any editorial content from its website. However, if there is a factual inaccuracy in a story, the editors will run a correction or an update as needed. When a person calls in question of a fact published they should never be guaranteed a correction will run. A section editor must first confirm that the fact in question is an inaccuracy.

In a lot of ways, this can make sense. The hard-line approach prevents staffers from having to pick and choose among which things are worthy or unworthy of “scrubbing” from an archive. The requirement of factual accuracy being at issue makes it clear that someone being embarrassed or upset over accurate coverage isn’t going to cut it in terms of a correction or retraction.

What seems like a simple cut-and-dried approach to archived indiscretion became more complicated recently when the Boston Globe decided to give people a chance to get a pass on their past. The “Fresh Start Initiative” allows people to request a review of previously published content about them for updates, removal or other reconsideration:

Similar to “right to forget” programs that have cropped up in a number of newsrooms across the country, the undertaking is meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes,or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.

“It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects,” said Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe. “Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.”

Truth be told, student newsrooms have been talking about these concerns for years and have had policies that support whatever position they took. To get a better grip on what student media outlets were doing regarding “take-down requests” and their thoughts on them based upon what the Globe had done, I posed the question on the College Media Advisers listserv.

In many cases, folks explained they had a pretty solid and long-running policy on how they viewed their content. The policy at The Temple News, for example, offers authority to any given editor-in-chief to remove or retain content, but it notes that published content, regardless of format, is seen as part of the “historical record.”

Others, like the Elon News Network at Elon University, provide a pathway to content removal and a process to petition the organization:

ENN has created a review board of organization leaders and faculty advisers to review content that has been petitioned to have content changed. The board will meet at least once a semester to review all requests.

The content removal petition form is available online, and should meet the following requirements:

  • The petition must be filed by the person directly involved, and not be made on behalf of an individual.

  • Three years must have passed from the content’s publication.

  • The form below must be filled out and submitted. Any relevant documents that the review board should be made aware of should be submitted in the form. The review board will not take into consideration any documents submitted after the board has met.

One adviser noted that her students were looking at revising the policy, given the ubiquity of the internet. The line of “Nothing ever truly disappears on the internet” is more true now than ever before. It used to be that a web page could be abandoned and it would fall so far off the beaten path, nobody would find it. Even more, I know at least one student paper where I worked lost a ton of archives when it switched providers.

Today? That stuff would be easy to find and accessible with about two clicks and a simple search term.

(Another interesting angle someone brought up was the way in which efforts to preserve the past are now opening up more windows to older embarrassing incidents. When libraries or media outlets decide to digitize past issues and make them searchable, suddenly that arrest for drinking and driving that your step-dad swears never happened is at your fingertips, complete with his bad 1970s feathered-hair mug shot.)

The question of how to do this is often more concerned with what are the ramifications for doing this at all. In a listserv discussion on this topic, the director of publications at Western Kentucky mentioned a concern I often had in regard to this situation:

The attorney who represents the College Heights Herald and the Talisman has pretty consistently given the advice that you open a Pandora’s Box by granting a takedown request. If you later turn a request down, then you could be subject to being found arbitrary if the matter went to court.

It will be interesting to see if litigation emerges from what The Boston Globe is doing. For the time being, I still favor the “you can’t rewrite history” mantra, with offering to update the story to reflect how it turned out – but with documentation.

As for most legal things, I turn to the Student Press Law Center, which has a giant list of things to consider and processes to follow in this regard. The explanation of how the law works and why it works that way makes a lot of sense. It also outlines the potential legal potholes you might hit along the road.  One other thing SPLC touches on in this write up is the way in which the law and ethics can diverge.

In other words, just because you “can” do something, it doesn’t follow that you “should” do something, and that involves both publishing and removing content. In the case of removing content, the law might say you are on firm ground leaving up the story about the freshman who was arrested after police found him asleep, naked in a tree. However, that kid is now a 30-year-old local minister who has done a world of good, but for some reason, Google’s algorithm keeps putting that at the top of any search of his name. Is it “right” to keep that at the forefront of any discussion of this guy?

To that end, was it “right” to publish it in the first place, even though the law said you could? When it was a day-long or week-long embarrassment that probably won’t make it beyond the campus confines, publishing the content might not seem like that big of a deal. However, if you knew something would follow this person their entire lives and nothing they did could ever scrub it off, would you think twice before publishing something about a drunk freshman peeing in a campus parking lot after a house party?

I don’t know exactly how to split that hair, but an adviser who has worked with me to make the reporting book much better explained his approach in fantastic fashion:

This is the reason I strongly encourage our editors not to pursue stories focusing on minor “crime” stories, things involving drugs and alcohol and general college-aged stupidity. College is a time in a person’s life when they should explore and experiment. And they should not have to live with the punishment of such misdeeds for the rest of their lives. Good gosh, if Google was a thing when I was in college …

I usually err on the side of the person over any notion of journalism ethics.

Human first. Journalist second.

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