Critical Thinking

Should Newsrooms Unpublish or Modify Old Crime Stories?

Posted

Sarah Guidroz, 26, sophomore, Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, Calif.

From Texas, Guidroz is in her second semester at OCC studying political science, journalism and business. She is currently the news editor for the Coast Report and hopes to eventually complete a dual M.J./J.D. program.  

This is a situation best handled on a case-by-case basis by the editors of the newsroom. They are in the best position to know the importance and relation of a crime story to their community. Crime stories about minors, minor crimes and victimless crimes  such as drug possession are cases where it may be appropriate to unpublish or modify the articles to conceal the identity of the defendant. The impact past crimes have on people’s lives, such as difficulty finding jobs and housing, is very real and shouldn’t be underestimated by newsrooms. With the internet today, crime stories can haunt a defendant far longer than in the past. Especially with old crime stories, keeping them online may also drag on issues for some caused by racial disparity in law enforcement. Are we perpetuating the suffering of those who have found themselves victims of discriminatory policing by keeping these articles online? What demographic is this issue impacting the most?

On the other hand, news is a record of the past, and in some cases it may be offensive to victims to erase what happened to them from the pages of history. If someone contacted our editorial board with a request to unpublish or modify an article about a crime a student was a victim of, I likely wouldn’t vote to accommodate that request. It may be a good compromise, when possible, for a news organization to remove an article in question from the Google search engine, like Boston Globe offers, instead of unpublishing the story. When making these decisions, editors should try to balance our duty to report the truth with our duty to act in the public’s best interest. Our words as journalists hold great power. And as Uncle Ben would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Kurt Hildebrand, 60, editor, The Record-Courier, Gardnerville, Nev.

Hildebrand is editor and lone reporter at The Record-Courier. He has covered emergency services in the Eastern Sierra since 1988, starting out in Ridgecrest, Calif., before moving to Gardnerville in 1989. He was managing editor of Nevada’s capital city daily, the Nevada Appeal.  

Anyone covering arrests and court cases should keep in mind that these stories are often about the worst day in someone’s life. What we report, whether it’s a parade or an arrest, freezes in time at the moment someone presses send on a story. But that’s not how real life works.

When I started out as a police reporter in 1988, I was assigned to go down to the station and write up the arrests for the blotter. While that was all anyone asked of me, I wanted to know what happened to the people who were the subjects of that reporting. So, I started following up on the people I’d named, despite being told the paper didn’t want to pay me to sit in court.

For decades, newspapers large and small have sent reporters to the police station to look through the arrest logs and generate lists of people who’ve been taken into custody. More enlightened publications only name those arrested in felonies. However, far more compelling is what happens after that arrest.

When we name someone, when we publish their photo, I feel we take on the responsibility to find out what happens in that person’s case.

I would no more remove a true story from the website than I would razor it out of the newspaper’s bound volume. However, the internet offers us an opportunity to report what’s happened to someone after that worst day.

I regularly update stories with new information when it becomes available. Why wouldn’t I do that with crime stories?

If someone has graduated from a diversion program or has been acquitted, that’s not just news, but a real life redemption arc.

People’s lives don’t freeze at their worst moments, and the stories about those moments shouldn’t either.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment