Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized

The Boston Globe is starting a new program by which people who feel an article at the newspaper is harmful to their reputation can ask that it be updated or anonymized. It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial, since it concerns only one editorial outlet and not a content-agnostic search engine.

The “Fresh Start” initiative isn’t for removing bad restaurant reviews or coverage of serious crimes, but rather for more commonplace crime desk reporting: a hundred words saying so-and-so was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, perhaps with a mugshot.

Such stories do serve a purpose, of course, in informing readers of crime in their area. But as the Globe’s editor, Brian McGrory points out:

It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects. Our sense, 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 addressing it.

Evidence of bias in policing, which is turned into inherited bias in reporting, is a serious problem and one the country has been grappling with for decades. But it is exacerbated by the nature of the digital record.

An employer looking at an application has only to search for the name or a few other details to find any standout information, such as a crime sheet entry with a mugshot. And while outlets often cover low-level arrests, they rarely cover low-level acquittals or dropped charges. No one clicks on those, after all. So for many the result is incomplete and therefore potentially damaging information.

The attempt in Europe to fix this at the search engine level has been met with opposition and difficulty, since search engines are not in charge of the information they index and felt they should not be put in the position of deciding what should or shouldn’t be removed. Furthermore the task may be complex, as a single article may be replicated or referenced dozens or thousands of times, or backed up on a site like the Internet Archive. What then?

At the same time, it’s certainly less of a threat to free speech to ask a search engine to limit discoverability than to ask a publication to remove or change its content. The debate is ongoing.

The Globe’s approach is nowhere near as comprehensive as making Google “forget” a person’s record, but it is considerably simpler and less open to opposition. The paper exerts editorial control over itself, of course, and the question is not one of putting a piece of information down the memory hole, but revisiting whether it was newsworthy to begin with.

“It’s changing how we look at our coverage,” said managing editor for digital Jason Tuohey in the Globe announcement of its new endeavor. “If we change a story like this with the Fresh Start committee, why would we assign one like it next week?”

The newspaper has established a 10-person committee to examine petitions from people asking to have articles updated — never removed, it’s important to add. While an earlier effort like this at the Cleveland Plain Dealer required people to show a court record expungement order, there is no legal bar to meet here.

The team admits off the bat that this will be complicated. Automated or fraudulent requests will surely pour in, public figures will take a shot, there will be conflicting opinions on what evidence, if any, is required to confirm an event or identity, and so on. And at the end, all that will be accomplished is one article, perhaps even just one line, will be altered — long after it has been replicated across the web and archival infrastructure. But it’s a start.

One paper doing this may not have a large effect, but if the program is successful other outlets may take notice. And as Tuohey noted, the wisdom of publishing the information in the first place starts to look shaky when one learns how ramshackle the justice system really is. Perhaps it’s only fair that people have a shot at applying that newfound skepticism to events of years past.

Anyone who thinks they could benefit from Fresh Start can apply here.