Column: Some newspapers are deleting old crime stories to give people fresh starts. Is that wise?
About 10 years ago, a woman called me from the San Fernando Valley with a request I could not accommodate.
She had been arrested many years earlier for prostitution, when she was barely out of her teens. Her name and the charges against her had been published in The Times and now, in the internet era, the article was one of the first things that popped up when you googled her name.
She began to cry on the phone. She’d done something wrong a long, long time ago, she said, and now she couldn’t escape it. Potential employers had seen the story. She was worried her daughter would stumble across it.
Couldn’t we just take the article down? Make it impossible to find on search? Take her name out of it?
The answer was no.
I felt terrible. The crime she was accused of didn’t seem to me like something that should haunt a person forever.
In the old days, a story like that would appear in the print editions, but a few days later all those papers would be lining birdcages or wrapping fish, and the article would only be findable in archives, often on microfilm or microfiche.
But now, nothing goes away. Everything can be found online, instantly.
That technological reality — and an increasing push from criminal justice reformers who believe that long ago, low-level crimes ought to be forgotten — is leading some news organizations around the country to rethink their policies.
In late January, the Boston Globe became the latest to roll out a change. The paper announced a new “Fresh Start” initiative, under which it will allow people to apply to have stories about their “past embarrassments, mistakes or minor crimes” updated, anonymized or in some cases delisted from Google search results. The newspaper explained that the value of giving someone a new chance in life “often outweighs the historic value of keeping a story widely accessible long after an incident occurred.”
I think that’s the wrong solution.
It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the subjects of these stories. It is long past time for society to change the way it views people who have had run-ins with the criminal justice system. A person convicted of selling a small amount of drugs, for instance, should not be considered beyond redemption or denied jobs or apartments for the rest of his or her life. This has been a problem especially for people of color.
Newspapers absolutely should play a part in ameliorating the situation by reconsidering, going forward, what they report in the paper, how they play and contextualize crime stories, what language they use and how they evaluate facts they get from police.
But they shouldn’t muck around with history. Trying to rewrite the past, or even trying to hide from view what has already been reported, is almost always a mistake.
It may sound self-important, but what appears in the newspaper really is the first draft of history. Of course it is sometimes flawed, sometimes incomplete, sometimes even unfair, but it’s the best record we have. We’re opening a dangerous door if we agree to go back and alter an old article because we no longer think it’s newsworthy or we wish we hadn’t said what we said or we have a different sense now of what’s right or wrong.
Unpublishing is a violation of our obligation to readers, and to transparency. And it doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is society’s unforgiving attitude. It merely makes information in the public record less accessible.
And where does such revisionism end? Once you’re changing old stories, surely there will be a temptation to go beyond crime stories, to protect people from other negative coverage they find embarrassing.
There’ll even be internal pressure: Why shouldn’t the L.A. Times delete from its archives, say, the racist editorials it wrote in support of incarcerating Japanese Americans during World War II?
But the answer is simple: Those editorials are part of the historical record, and we can’t scrub ourselves clean of them now.
Remember Winston Smith in George Orwell’s “1984”? His job at the “Ministry of Truth” was to bring old newspaper accounts into line with whatever Big Brother said was the truth today. That meant rewriting old articles that “it was thought necessary to alter, or as the official phrase had it, to rectify.”
There is no current discussion at the L.A. Times of adopting a policy that would allow the paper to change or hide already-published stories. But other papers are moving forward.
There have been lawsuits in several states seeking to force newspapers to take down old stories in cases where a conviction was expunged. But courts have generally ruled that newspapers are under no obligation to do so.
I’m not saying there could never be a case where, on balance, it might be justified — a life or death situation, for instance, or a legal order to do so. But in the vast majority of cases there are other steps newspapers can take to help people who feel an old story is unfairly affecting them.
Newspapers can, for instance, correct inaccuracies, even in an old story. And they can go further (although they have no legal obligation to do so) and update stories with additional relevant information. For instance, if an article cites an arrest but then charges were later dropped or the suspect was acquitted or subsequently exonerated, editors could append a note to the original article explaining the outcome. In other cases, a note could be added offering greater context, if merited.
Would that have helped the woman who called me? Perhaps, but perhaps not. And it is certainly unsettling to reflect that stories might be causing unfair harm or pain to people we write about.
But erasing history by “rectifying” past stories sets a dangerous precedent.
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