At age 19, Joe Smith, home from college and enjoying catching up with some old high school friends the night after Thanksgiving at a downtown bar, gets drunk and winds up arrested at 2 a.m. for being drunk in public, disorderly conduct, assault with a deadly weapon (a beer bottle) and resisting arrest.
Local media, including the Palo Alto Weekly, include the incident and Smith's arrest in an article, as has long been the tradition of local newspapers, satisfying readers' appetite for details of crime stories.
When the case gets submitted by police to the District Attorney's office, the DA decides the incident doesn't warrant prosecution and offers Smith three months' probation in exchange for a no-contest plea to disorderly conduct. Smith takes the deal and, after serving his probation successfully, asks the court to expunge the case from its records, as allowed in California and most states.
Since Smith's name is so common, his arrest will likely not follow him around the rest of his life, in spite of it being on the internet as an archived story of the local newspaper. He is lucky, only because of his name.
But what if his name were Rashid Poedoseporo? The one short news story on his initial arrest would be the first and possibly only result in a Google search for his name by a future employer, even 10 or 15 years later.
While the above facts and names are made up, they are typical of a growing ethical and moral problem facing news organizations, whose content lives on forever on the internet rather than virtually vanishing into the basement archives of local libraries, as it did not long ago.
When we first began receiving pleas for us to remove such content from our archives by those arrested years earlier, we took the hard line that most newspapers have long taken — our story was factually correct and our policy is to not alter the permanent record of the news.
But as these requests multiplied (we now receive two or three each month on average) we began looking at the issue from the perspective of the person arrested and the disproportionality and unfairness of the lifelong effects on someone with an unusual name.
After reviewing countless instances involving the arrests of young people, many of them with unusual names because of their ethnicity, we began looking at this partly as a discrimination and social-justice issue. In a nation of immigrants with many unusual last names, why should our reporting and editing decisions have disproportionate impacts depending on a person's ethnicity, or simply the uniqueness of his or her name?
In addition, in many instances police will arrest and book suspects for every conceivable crime that could be charged, despite knowing that the charges ultimately filed by the DA are often much less serious.
In crafting what we think is a thoughtful policy on removing names from archived stories, we discovered that removing a name from our story doesn't affect the Google search result for that person, nor does it solve the problem of "public shaming" websites that grab our original crime stories and propagate the information for their own financial gain.
So this led us to a re-evaluation of how we approach the initial reporting of arrests, as well as the publication of booking photos provided by the police.
In balancing our First Amendment right to publish information on any arrest, an arrestee's right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and the public's right to know the details of crime taking place in their community, we formulated a new policy, implemented last week, on when we will (and won't) report the names of those arrested by law enforcement.
Our new policy states that except in limited instances, news stories will not name those arrested (or include photos) until they are formally charged by the District Attorney. The exceptions are the arrest of a prominent person in the community or a public safety or school employee; if the arrest was for a major violent crime or the result of an extended police or FBI investigation; or, if in the judgment of the editor, the crime was widely reported and is of broad public interest or concern.
The policy is intentionally flexible because every situation is different. And we make no promises about later adding to a story the name of a person charged for a crime by the DA after leaving the name out of the original story. Our news judgment of the public interest in publishing the person's identity will guide that determination.
As only one news source, our change in policy won't by itself solve the problems described above. And it will probably encourage some readers to look elsewhere for the information we won't be publishing. But we think the media has a responsibility to regularly look at the consequences of its editorial practices and to modify them as circumstances change, as has certainly happened due to the permanence of information on the internet.