The Boston Globe is launching a new program whereby people who believe a newspaper article is damaging their reputation can request that it be updated or anonymized. This is reminiscent of the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’, although potentially less controversial, as it concerns only one editorial and not a content independent search engine.
The “Fresh Start” initiative is not about removing bad restaurant reviews or serious crime coverage, but rather more common crime reporting: a hundred words saying so and so was arrested for disorderly conduct and resistance to crime. arrest, perhaps with a mugshot.
Such stories serve, of course, to inform readers about crime in their area. But as Globe editor Brian McGrory points out:
We never intended to make a short and relatively insignificant Globe story affect the future of ordinary people who might be its subjects. Our feeling, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start fixing it.
Evidence of bias in policing, which turns into hereditary bias in reporting, is a serious problem the country has grappled with for decades. But it is exacerbated by the nature of the digital disc.
An employer looking at an app only needs to look up the name or a few other details to find some notable information, like a crime sheet entry with a photo. And while outlets often cover low-level arrests, they rarely cover low-level acquittals or dropouts. No one clicks on it, after all. So for many, the result is incomplete and therefore potentially damaging information.
The attempt in Europe to solve this problem at the search engine level has met with opposition and difficulties, as search engines are not responsible for the information they index and felt that they should not. be put in a position to decide what should and should not. be withdrawn. Also, the task can be complex, as a single article can be replicated or referenced tens or thousands of times, or saved to a site like the Internet Archive. So what?
At the same time, asking a search engine to limit discoverability is certainly less of a threat to free speech than asking a publication to remove or edit its content. The debate is ongoing.
The Globe’s approach is nowhere near as comprehensive as making Google “forget” a person’s file, but it is considerably simpler and less open to opposition. The newspaper exercises editorial control over itself, of course, and the point is not to put a piece of information in the memory hole, but to reconsider whether it was of interest to begin with.
“It changes the way we look at our coverage,” said digital editor Jason Tuohey in the Globe’s announcement of his new business. “If we change a story like this with the Fresh Start Committee, why would we award one like this next week?”
The newspaper set up a 10-person committee to review petitions from people asking for articles to be updated – never deleted, it’s important to add. While an earlier effort like this one at the Cleveland Plain Dealer required people to show a court record strike order, there’s no legal hurdle here.
The team admits from the start that it will be complicated. Automated or fraudulent requests will surely pour in, public figures will take a photo, there will be conflicting opinions on what evidence, if any, is needed to confirm an event or identity, and so on. And in the end, all that will be accomplished is that an article, maybe even a single line, will be changed – long after it has been replicated to the web and archive infrastructure. But it’s a start.
An article doing this may not have a big effect, but if the program is successful, other outlets may take note. And as Tuohey has noted, the wisdom of releasing information in the first place begins to seem shaky when you learn how dilapidated the justice system really is. Perhaps it is right that people have a chance to apply this new skepticism to the events of years past.
Anyone who thinks they can benefit from Fresh Start can apply here.