Newspaper adds a sunset to searching police public records

If you’re an editor, you’ve gotten that plea, perhaps many times.

The answer of the future may start in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The Southeast Missourian announced a policy to block search engines from court and police public records and subsequent articles after six years.

“Our policy up until now has been we don’t take anything down,” said Jon Rust, publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

The volume of local requests and an international trend factored in to the change.

Europe’s “Right to be forgotten,” the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect in May 2018 and has helped focus a lot of attention on privacy rights for citizens in Europe and around the world.

That regulation allows people to request that their personal information saved by corporations and governments be deleted. It also includes a process to ask Google and other search engines to stop displaying links to certain news articles that pop up in the results from an online search.

That aspect prompted Rust’s compromise regarding removing information from his website.

The Southeast Missourian policy, which went into effect July 25, 2018, automatically “delists” the daily crime report from search engine accessibility after six years of being online. There was no specific rationale for the six-year timeframe, Rust said, noting that the staff discussed various typical scenarios and thought six years bridged the gap of people not having indiscretions follow them around but also a long enough period to establish a track record of staying out of trouble.

Also, people can request that staff-written stories about misdemeanors also get delisted after six years, but the newsroom will make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. It gives the newsroom important oversight but, Rust said, specific guidelines have also been established to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Neither of these changes will affect the results saved in the archive — which is not the same thing as a general Google search. A direct search of the archive will show the information in perpetuity, Rust said.

“At our company, one of our mottos is: ‘Everything we do should be measured by the test of truth and grace,’” Rust said. “Something disproportionate happens with a person’s identity when a crime charge is the lead result on a search engine and a story about the charge being dismissed or reduced is not easy to find.”

That’s really the heart of the matter, according to Bill Church, senior vice president for news at Gatehouse Media, one of the largest publishers of locally-based media in the nation with operations in 37 states.

“Something disproportionate happens with a person’s identity when a crime charge is the lead result on a search engine and a story about the charge being dismissed or reduced is not easy to find.”

As local and state governments continue to up their digital game and make public records like crime reports much more accessible than ever before, newsrooms have to evaluate whether it makes sense to post and print this information.

“We talk about the importance of recognizing that if you decide to report on something or put it online that you are also willing to see it through to the end and update it when necessary,” said Church. “We want to be fair and sensitive and that’s why we want to make sure we’re updating and clarifying our content.”

Church said Gatehouse newsrooms also get numerous requests to remove content and, partly as a result, recently convened a small group of editors to review the “straightforward” policy of saying no to requests to take down online information. The editors concluded there wasn’t a good alternative to the existing Gatehouse policy.

“It’s tricky and definitely an ongoing challenge,” he said.

Frank LoMonte, professor and director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, agrees on the ongoing challenge front.

“The online archives of a news website are unlike any other creature we’ve dealt with before. They’re not like a one-time broadcast that’s viewed and then fades away,” he said. “For that reason, I think it’s an entirely valid discussion to consider whether there’s any real informational value in continuing to make decade-old articles about minor misconduct by named people accessible online.”

LoMonte said the Southeast Missourian’s policy seemed like a “legitimate answer to the deluge of requests for information to be erased from the historical record.”

There are larger issues. For example, how many news organizations are reducing, either by choice or necessity, how much of this information they provide. Church mentioned its availability elsewhere. Rust noted that the content doesn’t help build stronger relationships with readers.

And with plenty of companies offering to provide all kinds of information about citizens just by typing their name into a search box, maybe newspapers are the least of the problem for someone with privacy concerns.

Nonetheless, trying to draw the distinction between collecting and publishing a public record for readers versus publicizing a public record for the entire world is not for the faint of heart.

One privacy attorney noted that the new policy in Cape Girardeau was akin “to having a library full of books but discontinuing the card catalogue system you use to find them.”

It doesn’t get any easier either when Rust gazes over his online horizon. The next frontier will be engagements and wedding announcements. When something goes wrong, folks want the information removed, and the added twist is that for the Southeast Missourian and many other community newspapers, readers pay for that information to be posted.

On Facebook, where more announcements are heading, people have more control. “They can post it there, have all the people they want see it and, if it doesn’t go through, delete it or know that it will be buried and hard to find.”

More soul searching and number crunching will come. Stay tuned.


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