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Do news organizations need to adopt a new standard for publishing or removing online police reports?

A recent Toronto Star survey  of 110 news organizations indicated a growing request for unpublishing of archived online stories.

The survey report found that “unpublishing requests occur increasingly in connection to reports of criminal charges from the daily police blotter. The reality that many news organizations do not routinely follow-up on the outcome of these charges and report on acquittals or dropped charges is an issue of increasing concern for news organizations and those they report on.”

More than 75 percent of surveyed editors recognized that “circumstances sometimes warrant changing the record. Some said they would remove information if there were a legal reason to do so. Others were more open to adding information than subtracting it. Overall, though, they were strongly resistant to altering published stories.”

Since, in our judicial system, many people are arrested but are never convicted or their charges are reduced, publishing initial reports but never following up can be experienced by many as a careless use of public records. It can do permanent harm by undermining our system, which is built on the premise that one is innocent until proven guilty.

For example, as potential employers are searching the Web, they will likely only see someone’s arrest report in the newspaper, and very unlikely take the extra costly step of searching courthouse records to see the outcome of  dismissal or false arrest from mistaken identity.

Toronto Star editor Kathy English argues, “To erase the record of what has been published would diminish transparency and credibility with readers.”

But StinkyJournalism notes that publishing only part of the story can, in certain cases, unfairly exploit an individual’s process through the judicial system for profit. It’s cherry-picking public records without taking responsibility for harm done to the wrongly accused that once is on the Web lasts forever.

Michael A. Coupe comments on NorthFulton.com, a Georgia news Web site:  “My [DWI] case was reduced to reckless driving and then a non-ticketable offense. My public arrest records were obviously sold to your newspaper. If it was complete information published ethically, it would truly disclose all the facts and outcomes and/or convictions which are also public domain.” Coupe complains of the harm done when your name is searched on the Web and your arrest appears in the top ten Google results but not the significant reduction of the charge.

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He writes, “This type of information which is incomplete can do allot of damage to ones reputation. I would not be making this argument if I was convicted of a DUI, but I was not! I am a local entrepreneur and doctoral student candidate.”

The Miller-McCune magazine reports, “Some readers don’t want their marital status or the price of their home known, or they were quoted saying something they now regret. They may be angry because the news of their arrest was reported, but not the news that they were acquitted or that charges were dropped, and their names keep popping up on Internet searches in connection with the crimes, usually misdemeanors.”

The Marietta Times reported, in an article about Ohio’s Public Records Act, that Ohio resident Ron Tomasch felt “it’s understandable that cases involving public officials and known criminals may receive more attention, but he doesn’t think other people should be spotlighted for alleged crimes.”

Tomasch worries about published police records presenting people in a negative way. “It’s one thing to be accused of a crime; it’s another thing to be found guilty,” he said. “Just because somebody was arrested doesn’t mean they’re found guilty.”

The Marietta Times interviewed Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association and president of the Ohio Coalition for Open Government. He said, “There’s more to the release of these records, and news organizations’ decision to publish them, than simply satisfying curiosity.”

Marietta Times reported “Deaner said it is important that court records are open to public inspection so that an individual’s rights to be tried before a jury of their peers and be considered innocent until proven guilty are upheld. ‘The way you ensure that [it] is done properly is by having court proceedings observed and reported on,” he said.

The media game changer is that news reports are now quickly retrieved on the Web, instead of hidden away in public libraries’ microfiche archives. Between this fact and severe cutbacks of journalists and budgets in news organizations everywhere, the obvious challenge for both the media and citizens is to balance the free availability of public information and the responsibility for completeness to the point of fair reporting and “minimizing harm,” a core value of journalism.

iMediaEthics has contacted The Toronto Star, Miller-McCune, and the Marietta Times and will update with any response.

(Read more about this topic on The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics Web page, that states: “Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.”)

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