The ‘right to be forgotten’? Forget about it, but nicely

Jim Pumarlo
Jim Pumarlo

 A volley of charges and countercharges is common fare at many meetings of local government bodies. An individual in the audience accuses a city council member of wrongdoing. A school board member cries foul on a vote, claiming conflict of interest. Your newspaper reports the exchanges, on most occasions, as relevant to the debate and decision-making.

 And then the phone call comes: How dare you make such statements? The charges are absolutely untrue. 

You then offer a tutorial to the reader, explaining the difference between the message and the messenger.

 In similar vein, I encourage editors to understand the difference between the message and the medium. I make the distinction after reviewing another exchange among editors on whether to honor reader requests to remove online articles.

 An editor wrote. “The reasons vary: My sister shoplifted but she learned her lesson. I defrauded an innkeeper but I’m honest now. When people Google me they only see my wedding announcement but I’m divorced and it’s awkward.”

 I caution editors to be careful, no matter how compelling the circumstances appear. You are putting yourself in the position of being judge and jury on the worthiness of an individual’s request to remove information. Pause for a moment and ask: Are you basing decisions on the message or the medium?

 The internet and electronic permanency of records certainly has elevated this discussion. It’s doubtful that individuals would storm into a newsroom and demand that editors collect and destroy all newspaper clippings on a story. You wouldn’t go into your archives and cut out the stories in question.

 At their foundation, newspapers are a living pulse of our communities. The ways we deliver information have expanded dramatically. Information is more spontaneous than ever, especially through social media channels. Consider all the information—and misinformation—in a Twitter exchange. It’s all public and permanent online.

 And newspapers are far from being the only reporters covering a community or an issue. The internet has enabled nearly anyone to become a self-proclaimed gatherer and distributor of news.

 I don’t suggest editors be insensitive to requests, especially those that are in the realm of public records. Individuals naturally want to set the record straight if criminal charges have been dropped or court records have been reversed. But remember, an expungement of a record does not mean an incident never occurred. It simply means that actions were taken to permanently seal records; they still are on file at courthouses. The same information may be on other online sites as well.

 Specific to court data, newsrooms should do their part to track proceedings and publish follow-up stories. Individuals, in turn, can produce these stories as evidence of court action.

 Overall, for any reporting error, newsrooms should be responsive to publishing corrections – where warranted – in prompt fashion. Online, corrections should be linked to or exist as an addendum to the original piece. Individuals can use the corrections as well to prove their case. 

 In the larger debate, however, two real-life examples underscore the impracticality of requests to remove electronic records.

 Consider marriage annulments. Should all references to a marriage – the publication of a marriage license application from the courts or the engagement/wedding write-ups submitted by the individuals themselves now be stricken from the records because a marriage has been legally declared invalid?

 Or what about sports teams sanctioned by governing bodies? Teams are stripped of titles, and “victories” are officially deemed “losses” in permanent records. Individual statistics are permanently altered – i.e. games played, points scored.

 Do a little brainstorming and you can add to the list of such circumstances. 

The editor who offered the examples of requests to remove the online records added, “We’ve stiff-armed all these people for a long time. No, our policy is never to remove articles from our website. But I wonder: If you’ve paid your debt to society, should your online digital skeletons haunt you the rest of your days? In the olden days it would be printed in the paper and you would be humiliated for a short time and then people would forget. The internet never forgets.”

 Again, be careful in your decisions. Don’t confuse the message with the medium. I encourage newspapers to take your roles seriously and regularly remind readers: We are here to “record” history and not “rewrite” history. 

 Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of several books, including “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.