When community leaders appealed to The Philadelphia Inquirer last week to change how it covered the city’s diverse population, they proposed an advisory board to help develop crime coverage policies, including ways for people named in crime stories to have the stories removed from the Inquirer website.’
The idea — often called the right to be forgotten — has been part of a larger debate over how false, dated or damaging information can be removed from search engines. As newsrooms look inward and re-examine their coverage of underrepresented communities, the fact that a minor long-ago crime is just a Google search away is now being seen through a social justice lens.
To some news organizations, however, this is nothing new. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s online site, Cleveland.com, has been removing names and stories from its archives for more than two years. Its experience could be a model for other newsrooms during this time of reckoning.
People submit requests that are reviewed by a team of Cleveland.com editors. The policy does not apply to elected officials, celebrities and public officials. Cases of corruption, sex crimes or violent crimes are not eligible for removal.
We emailed Cleveland.com/Plain Dealer editor Chris Quinn to learn how the policy works and how the community has responded to it.
What prompted this policy?
Quinn: We started this a few years ago after debating it in our newsroom for two or three years. We did it because of the increasing number of people who sent us notes saying they had made mistakes, atoned and tried to move on, only to be hindered by our stories popping up first in internet searches. Unlike stories in print editions, which faded from view almost as soon as they appeared, our stories stayed front and center, in part because of our powerful SEO. Thus, we were the source of their suffering. The value to these people of having the pieces fall out of search engines greatly exceeded the remaining news value they had.
How many requests have you received in the past year and how many have resulted in the removal of a name or story?
Quinn: We get anywhere from six to 15 requests a month. It has slowed down during the pandemic. We approve 70 to 80% of them. The question always comes down to, is the value of keeping the story up greater than the value to the requesting person. Usually, it’s an easy answer.
How does the policy work? Are names removed from stories in your archives or are entire stories deleted?
Quinn: With many stories, we are able to remove the names and identifying information while leaving the story published. With some, removal of the names turns the stories into gibberish, so those we take down permanently.
How does the review of requests work? Do decisions have to be unanimous?
Quinn: The editors form the committee that considers these requests, and it’s a majority vote. We have had just a handful where the votes were close. Pre-COVID, we were having meetings every four to six weeks. Now, I’m sending around emails with the requests and any background.
You don’t expunge stories or names in cases of sex crimes, violence crimes and corruption. Any other factors?
Quinn: The only other factor is time. We generally lean on 4 years. We’ll break that on occasion, but normally, a story has to be four years old before we consider it.
Did you have to seek legal advice before instituting the policy?
Quinn: Not legal advice per se. We have a great communications lawyer in Advance [the media company that operates Cleveland.com], one I talk with regularly, and I had a conversation about it with him just to pick his brain.
What has been the community reaction to your policy?
Quinn: Nearly universally positive. Some people believe we are harming the early versions of history and oppose it, but most people have come to see this as a social justice issue akin to the expungement of crime offenses.
Have other news organizations sought your advice on how to implement similar policies?
Quinn: Before the pandemic not a week went by, it seemed, without someone reaching out to discuss this, because what we are doing has received a lot of attention in journalism circles. The pandemic and recent social justice debate has kept most people in our profession pretty busy since late winter, so we’ve had fewer inquiries.
Do you have a policy for people whose names are removed but subsequently decide to run for office or take on a prominent role in the community?
Quinn: No. Once we take it out, we consider the matter closed.
Have you made adjustments to the policy based on your experience?
Quinn: The one adjustment we have made is to refuse to consider requests from third parties. A cottage industry has formed in which companies get paid to clear the internet of negative references to their clients. We worry this will create a class of haves and have nots, where people of means clear their records but people without means do not. So we require the subject of the stories to contact us directly.
At the same time we instituted our Right to be Forgotten policy, we also stopped including the names and mugshots in most stories about non-violent crime. We stopped using names to avoid having to deal with Right to be Forgotten requests down the line, and we stopped using mug shots because we determined they perpetuated racial stereotypes.