Aspen Times editorial: Aspen Times joins ‘right to be forgotten’ movement when it comes to crime reporting, old and new
Aspen is a town where people can let their hair down when they come for vacation and locals can get a little too rowdy. Those times occasionally can lead to bad decisions, unintended consequences and perhaps a run-in with our local law enforcement.
And the internet never forgets. That maxim is too often reinforced in our newsroom each time someone emails or calls with an appeal to have a name removed or a mugshot pulled from an old story that continues to follow them around as they try to move on with their lives.
For the past few months, editors and others with Swift Communications, which owns The Aspen Times and Colorado Mountain News Media, have been having high-level discussions as a media group about the “right to be forgotten” — a movement that started in Europe and has begun to gain traction in newsrooms across the United States.
The focus of our discussions has centered on this question: How long should you be penalized for minor crimes you committed years ago?
Basically, should you have the right to be forgotten by Google when those old stories are blocking you from landing jobs? How long should you have to pay for an old mistake?
For editors who take very seriously the role of leading the papers of record in each market, it goes against instinct to go back and rewrite that record. We’re in the business of getting it right and standing by the reporting we do. Reporting on crime, especially violent crimes and sexual assaults and rapes, is also one of the core tenets of community journalism.
That said, we can’t ignore this truth: While we live in the day-to-day world of reporting on our communities, one story deemed worthy for that day’s paper lives on in perpetuity for the charged and/or convicted long after that person has paid their debt to society.
So, we have launched a process across Colorado Mountain News Media’s chain of papers in which people can request to have their names removed from old stories. And we’re leaning on a model that has been established at other news organizations for making those decisions.
That process starts with the admission that, as journalists, we’re not in the position to judge who gets clemency and who doesn’t. That’s why we will rely on the courts and the legal process that people use to clear their records: expungement.
People who have committed nonviolent crimes and successfully petition the courts to permanently delete records of their criminal cases will be able to send us an online request. After filling out a form we’ve created, along with proof of the expungement, we will, in many cases, remove names and photos from stories on our websites.
Who doesn’t get clemency? For starters, elected officials and other notable community leaders or public figures.
The emphasis with this policy is on victimless crimes. We won’t be removing names from stories about violent crimes or sex crimes or major felony cases that drew considerable community interest. It’s also not a black-or-white policy, and there may be other reasons that the editor in a specific market decides to preserve a story, despite an appeal from someone who’s had their record expunged. We still reserve the right to publish or not publish.
Only in rare situations will we remove a story; our goal is to amend the story and remove names or identifying information when appropriate. We will recast the story and include an “editor’s note” that the story was amended and why.
To go along with this new initiative, we’re also having a company-wide conversation about best practices for crime reporting going forward, which includes limiting use of mug shots to high-profile cases and eliminating the arbitrary nature of just scouring the courts and arrest logs for something that can fill a news hole.
We have been using that principle the past few months at The Aspen Times as we re-examine our role, and we will continue to focus our crime reporting on arrests in serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder, drug distribution, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping or crimes involving a high-profile person.
Going forward, we will also only commit reporting resources to following a case through to its disposition if the accused’s name is published.
As we launch this initiative, we know we will run into questions that we don’t have answers to right away. There will be cases that will certainly test the spirit of this new policy and will spark conversations in our newsroom. We don’t know exactly what to expect.
But we are committed to changing the status quo and taking a more humane, logical approach to how we cover crime and how we assess requests to rewrite the record.
To submit a request to have your name and/or photo removed from a story, please go to https://www.aspentimes.com/submit-a-request-to-update-a-crime-story. It also can be found at the bottom of our home page aspentimes.com under the Reader Tools sections. You can begin the process of expungement by finding information and the necessary forms at: https://www.courts.state.co.us.
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