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Papers rethink past crime reporting: Fresh start or a cover-up?

Newspapers often record the first draft of history. But resource-strapped news outlets have a “bad habit” of not writing follow-up stories with fresh information about crimes, says Rick Edmonds, an analyst for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sometimes charges against individuals have been dropped. Others are acquitted by juries in court or have had their records sealed by judges. Yet the original articles about the inciting incidents remain online without additional context or updates.

“Black and brown communities have been trying to have these types of conversations with newsrooms and news outlets,” says Tauhid Chappell, a News Voices project manager at Free Press, a nonprofit organization that advocates for racial justice in the media. “So many media institutions do not allocate enough resources for community outreach, community listening, and community engagement.”

In Boston, the Globe’s Fresh Start initiative arrives after months of journalists deliberating with Boston Globe Media’s Inclusion Council and with consulting groups that work in criminal justice, victims’ rights, and recidivism. The paper also consulted news organizations that have pursued similar initiatives.

One predecessor is Cleveland.com, which includes content from print publication The Plain Dealer. The site announced its Right to be Forgotten initiative in 2018 and receives about 10 to 15 requests per month. It won’t act on requests related to stories about violence, felony sex crimes, or corruption. But it has removed names of individuals in stories about crimes such as defacing a military monument, pilfering scrap metal, and stealing drugs from a health care employer. One successful applicant to have a name removed had injured someone in a car accident a decade previously when she was a teenager high on drugs.

“Sometimes they’ll write a fairly lengthy note saying, ‘Look, I made a mistake in my younger years, and I’ve really turned my life around … and yet any time somebody looks up my name, they get that awful picture of me and my story. I’d be so grateful if this could go away because it’s not who I am anymore,’” says Chris Quinn, editor of Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer.

Now, that initiative will go even further thanks to a $200,000 grant from Google. The goal is to develop tools that will root out old mug shots. The news outlet worries that publishing mug shots – supplied by police and predominantly featuring people of color – could perpetuate racial stereotypes among readers. The digital tool will also search the archives to proactively identify old stories that deserve reappraisal.

As more newspapers begin to digitize their archives as a way to make money, requests for anonymity are expected to increase. With little consistency across news organizations for handling these issues, Ms. Dwyer, from the Missouri School of Journalism, is utilizing the university’s Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to develop common guidelines and processes for unpublishing requests and processes across the industry.

“Without standards on what we arbitrarily, to some extent, delete from our archives – and especially how much we do that under no transparency or accountability to the public – the more trouble we can get in,” she says.

Mike Fannin, editor of The Kansas City Star and overseer of five other Midwest newsrooms owned by McClatchy publishing, says the parent company is “having conversations” about initiatives such as The Boston Globe’s Fresh Start. Individual McClatchy newspapers have received requests for anonymity in the past. 

News outlets are also considering how best to make sure all community members are aware of the initiatives. And some, including Mr. Fannin’s, are working to be more inclusive of their communities in other ways as well. Last year, he wrote a public letter on behalf of The Kansas City Star apologizing for the newspaper’s historically racially biased coverage. The Star is developing efforts to build the trust it’s been missing within the Black community. 

Mr. Chappell, with Free Press, says he would like to see newsrooms become more proactive, rather than reactive, and consider reallocating resources to reach underserved communities. Still, he’s grateful to see progress.

“Even when I worked in my first [newsroom] job in Arizona in 2012, we had people reach out to us to talk about their mugshot or to talk about their story that happened in the past. And even then, in 2012, we routinely rejected those requests,” says Mr. Chappell. “Finally, we have this racial reckoning, and it’s all of a sudden catalyzed these efforts now. I’m happy that they’re happening.”  

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