The internet has changed our lives in so many ways. In the news industry, it’s helped us research and find information quickly and allowed us to get professionally reported stories out to the public with short turnaround times.
The internet presents a record in time that anyone can call up at a moment’s notice, no matter how old the story is. For many, that’s a good thing and a beneficial resource. For others, it’s a reminder of old mistakes made that continue to affect their lives today.
Newsrooms like ours are trying to balance the need for a person’s privacy versus the newsworthiness of stories over time.
Over the last year or so, we’ve changed the criteria on how we do our crime reporting and where you see those stories in the newspaper. We are being more intentional about how our coverage can affect people down the road.
We continue to cover serious crimes — murder, sexual assault, serious drug charges and crimes against children, for example. In the interest of public safety, a community needs to be aware of the offenders who live among them. But people committing minor infractions don’t need stories written about them. It’s all public record from the courts. Anyone can access that information, not only journalists.
This week, the Daily News and News Monitor, along with our fellow Wick Communications newsrooms, 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.wahpetondailynews.com/cleanslate). There is a place to put the link to the story, any court documents you may 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 our crime stories off of police reports or criminal complaints and make no claim other than what we’ve written is “according to the complaint.”
We do know the article simply represents a snapshot in time – “Jane Doe was arrested on suspicion of …” Jane may have been convicted and served her time years ago, or charges may have been dismissed, and sometimes cases are settled out of court. That snapshot doesn’t give the whole story, especially if we didn’t follow the arrest all the way through the court system, which we try very hard to do.
If that is all we’ll ever read about Jane, the arrest defines her. That’s not right.
People shouldn’t continue to pay for minor infractions committed years ago. We appreciate that people can find forgiveness and better themselves, but many times every slight mark is held against them when being considered as a job applicant or housing renter.
Not all petitions will receive approval. The serious offenses listed above aren’t eligible.
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 acknowledgment 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.
We’re rolling out Clean Slate company-wide, and some of our newsrooms have dealt with plenty of cases already where it was a thumbs-up as much as thumbs-down. Who was told no? At one of our sister papers, there was 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.
Big crimes — murder, sexual assault, anything that involves public officials, or 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.