January 27, 2021

The Boston Globe lets story subjects appeal for a “fresh start.” Your newsroom should consider similar policies.

The Boston Globe made waves in the journalism world last week when it announced a new initiative: The newspaper will consider updating or anonymizing past crime stories based on appeals from story subjects.

“Globe journalism was never meant to be a permanent obstacle to someone’s success, with the worst decisions and moments in regular people’s lives accessible by a few keystrokes for the rest of time,” editors wrote when introducing the Fresh Start initiative. “This initiative aims to empower all people who want to have a fresh start.”

“We are not in the business of rewriting the past, but we want to update the record and not stand in the way of a regular person’s ability to craft their future.”

The Globe says it will examine each case individually, and there will be a higher bar for updating stories about public figures or serious crimes. They’ll also consider requests involving “potentially embarrassing, noncriminal behavior.”

An online form asks readers to submit contact information and a link to the story they’d like to be reviewed. They’re asked to explain why they want their information removed — how the story affected their life and what’s changed since it was published. There’s also an option to upload relevant documents, such as court records.

Search engines have made old news stories much more accessible than they used to be in a print-only age. Other professional publications have made similar efforts to balance recording history with reexamining the effects of crime coverage.

Consider: What would a policy similar to the Globe’s look like at your student publication?

An effort like this doesn’t require a fancy new website. You could accomplish something similar with a Google Form or just clear instructions on how to send editors an appeal. Making policies like this clearer can help build trust with your audience, as Lynn Walsh of Trusting News said in last week’s newsletter issue.

Even if you haven’t formalized a policy like the Globe’s, it’s likely your publication has gotten similar questions about old stories. The Student Press Law Center walks through different types of “takedown requests” student journalists might receive.

There’s rarely a legal justification to remove an article if it was lawful when it was first published, the SPLC writes: “Content that is lawful when printed on paper does not become unlawful just because it is potentially accessible to more readers by being posted online.”

Whether it’s ethical to update an article, though, is an entirely different question, and depends on the individual case. Rather than writing a blanket policy (“we’ll never change old crime stories” or “we’ll anonymize a story anytime a subject asks”), create an open-ended framework and come up with a list of questions to discuss for each case.

A few questions to consider as you develop a policy for updating or removing old stories:

  • Who’s in charge of reviewing requests?
  • Will you remove stories that have outdated information about criminal charges, or will you add an editor’s note to update them?
  • How will you handle requests involving legal charges compared to those that are simply embarrassing?
  • Will you accept requests to remove old opinion pieces, columns or letters to the editor?
  • How will you make your policy clear and accessible to readers?

There’s not an easy answer to these questions, and your newsroom will have to evaluate requests individually. Wherever your staff lands on these issues, making your stance clear to readers is paramount and will help you build trust moving forward.

One story worth reading

Student journalists around the country continued fighting for press freedom rights while reporting on the monumental events of 2020, Rainesford Stauffer reports for Teen Vogue. “There’s no reason we should be censored and prevented from covering things like gun control or racism or climate change, because these things impact our lives just as much as they impact adults’ lives,” one student journalist told Stauffer.

Many of the students interviewed are involved with New Voices, a Student Press Law Center movement to pass laws protecting student press freedom. Learn more and get involved here.

Bringing real-world examples to the classroom

Journalism educators, my editor Barbara Allen has a new Poynter resource for you: the Professor’s Press Pass, a library of real-world case studies you can use in the classroom. Allen writes in her Alma Matters newsletter:

“Our lessons come with learning outcomes, expected exercise length, pre-class reading assignments, key topics, background, hyperlinks, pre-made discussion questions and even a PowerPoint for each one. The library currently has a dozen of these case studies in it, and your subscription will give you access to all of them. As the library grows, you’ll have access to it in its entirety.”

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Concrete steps your newsroom can take to build trust with readers

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
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