“Legacy news organizations have been trying for more than a decade to crack the code of what to publish digitally, where and when. Now they are fielding a different kind of urgent request from readers — can you ‘unpublish’ that?
“The cause is obvious — people routinely get Googled by potential employers, dating partners or the just plain curious. That 20-year-old drunk and disorderly arrest has a way of popping to the top of the list.
“A remedy is less clear. Most newspapers have had a longstanding practice of removing published stories only under extraordinary circumstances. But does that still make sense in the digital era as the potential rises for damaging people’s reputations with long ago or out-of-context accounts of their misdeeds?”
— Newspapers hit with a wave of requests to take down embarrassing archived stories www.poynter.org, Sept. 2016
Arrests are part of the public record. Whatever else, we should be clear that we have the right to publish them, as long as they are not libelous. That said, as a community newspaper, we want to be good neighbors, too, and there are reasonable measures we can take in the case of private citizens who don’t want to be haunted by their past.
Ultimately, every instance should be a judgment call by the editor, who must weigh the public’s need to know about potentially serious events going on around them versus what European courts have begun to term “the right to be forgotten.” (Fortunately, this is a “right” that does not exist in American law).
Arrested but not convicted
This is probably the easiest call. If a person is arrested for a crime, particularly a misdemeanor, and the case is either not prosecuted or the defendant is found not guilty, then it’s reasonable to remove old news from the archive. The exception is if the acquittal itself was newsworthy. If the trial was worth covering in the first place, then the news value of the events probably overrides the defendant’s desire for anonymity.
On the other hand, there are plenty of situations where we report an arrest, but the case is never brought to trial, or the charges are thrown out, etc., without any followup ever appearing in the paper. In those cases especially, there is little point to hanging on to outdated stories.
Actually, this is the easiest call. Convictions should never be removed from the record.
This is usually related to a probation agreement. The defendant pleads guilty or no contest to the charges, and agrees to certain term of probation, at the end of which the court will change the plea to not guilty. If we can confirm that the conviction has indeed been vacated (there should be a signed court order of some sort), then it’s reasonable to remove the arrest story.
Again, the newsworthiness of the original trial may end up being more important.
This is the physical destruction of the relevant records, often including the arrest, too. Otherwise, similar to vacating a conviction.
For the most part, embarrassing old news (like Poynter’s example of the “naked maid”) isn’t enough. Safety, on the other hand should be. For example, we once had a request from a police officer who was about to join the undercover division. He wanted to be removed from the story covering his badge ceremony. Obviously, it was easy to say yes there.
We should be clear, though, that Google is forever (or at least for a very long time). Even if we take down a story, once it is in Google’s cache, it will still come up in search results. It’s just that the link to the story won’t work.