Boston Globe

Taking a look at the Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” program

Here are some key elements to consider

Last week, the Boston Globe announced a new program to help reduce the impact of personal information found online. The Fresh Start initiative invites people to request a review of information about them in the news site’s public-facing archive, similar to some other efforts we’ve seen launched in the last year or so. In particular, the Globe’s program allows people named in relation to a crime to request that the paper either update the content (if a charge was reduced, for example) or anonymize any identifying information.

Newsrooms that choose to offer this type of service to the public must face dozens of difficult questions—not only about the program itself, but also in how it is communicated to the public. Several elements of the Globe’s launch are worth noting for other newsrooms to consider.

Make your intentions known

The general philosophy behind these programs often rests on the idea that the old arrest report or story about a minor criminal conviction defines who that person was in the past, yet may destroy the chance to move on and be judged for who they are today. But Globe Editor Brian McGrory emphasized a more focused objective that I’ve written about before: addressing the systemic racial inequalities that exist in news coverage of crime.

The social inequities underlying unpublishing trends deserves to be prioritized as newsrooms consider implementing “fresh start” initiatives of their own. One important question to ask is who has the knowledge and agency to make a request in the first place? Accepting requests is a good start, but it will take more comprehensive approaches to ensure everyone gets the same chance to reset their digital reputation. I’d love to see newsrooms partnering with community agencies that conduct expungement clinics, for example, to help ensure relief is available for all.

There will be more transparency expected of newsrooms, I believe, as public awareness of unpublishing practices grows.

View the issue more broadly

Globe Managing Editor Jason Tuohey demonstrated this type of broader thinking when he noted that in tandem with the fresh start initiative, the newsroom will rethink how it reports on certain crimes. Pre-publication reporting practices are directly related to unpublishing, even though unpublishing is often seen as a “post publication” problem. You can read more about that here.

Communication—and yes, transparency—is required

Public understanding of efforts like the Globe’s is critical, and once again the newspaper demonstrated a commitment to their readers. They published a Q&A in tandem with the news announcement that provides more context both for those interested in making a request and the general public. This type of transparency into the process is critically important to maintaining trust with audiences and demonstrating professional accountability.

There will be more transparency expected of newsrooms, I believe, as public awareness of unpublishing practices grows. I believe a “transparency report” — a stripped-down version of Google’s report concerning Right to be Forgotten requests in the European Union—should be part of any unpublishing program. So far, news organizations I speak with aren’t comfortable going that far right now.

Resist the jargon

I was encouraged by the Globe’s chosen name of Fresh Start for its program. Why? Because all too often, newsrooms adopt some version of the “Right to be Forgotten” language associated with the digital privacy legislation in the European Union. The truth of the matter? Nothing is forgotten; in the EU, the information is simply delisted from search engines when the individual’s name is used in the search. This offers a level of obscurity, not erasure. We should be mindful of how the words we use convey an unspoken promise to those wishing for the latter.
Is your newsroom considering something similar to Fresh Start? Let’s talk! I’m happy to share insights from my research with newsrooms considering similar programs. Contact me at unpublishingthenews@google.com or @unpubthenews.

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