Jack Shafer: “Can Journalism Wean Itself Off the Cheap Clicks of Crime Coverage?”

From a story by Jack Shafer on politico.com headlined “Can Journalism Wean Itself Off the Cheap Clicks of Crime Coverage?”:

Crime and the American newspaper grew up together. As the press broke free from the political parties in the early 1830s, publishers like Benjamin H. Day of the New York Sun indulged the popular appetite with stories about violence, war, riots, suicide and crime — oodles of crime stories. The reader-pleasing, if-it-bleeds-it-leads formula the Sun and its imitators pioneered survives today, but recently critics both inside and outside the news industry would like to staunch the usual flow with some new practices.

Their argument boils down to this: Too much crime reporting unnecessarily stigmatizes both suspects and the convicted. To complicate matters, Google search has frozen into electronic amber every reported misdemeanor or felony, condemning the suspects to an eternity of shame. Under the “right to be forgotten” rubric, Cleveland.com (and sister institution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer), The Boston Globe, the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers have altered the way crime news should be preserved and retrieved. But before these right-to-be-forgotten fixes become journalism’s new orthodoxy, a fuller assessment of the purpose and meaning of crime reporting must be attempted so we don’t end up burning the house down to smoke out a single rat.

That crime reporting needs a rethink can’t be denied. Too many journalists rely on tired templates when filing from the police beat, blindly parroting what they read in the police blotter and failing to follow the story to its resolution. These lapses leave many suspects convicted in the popular imagination, even if they’re acquitted, and perpetually embarrassed as dated news stories surface and resurface on Google. It’s wrong, critics argue, for people to be turned away by a prospective employer over an arrest a decade ago for a single act of petty theft or vandalism: If you’ve done your time or were exonerated, the right-to-be-forgotten vanguard says, you shouldn’t have to continue to pay for the past….

Right-to-be-forgotten initiatives aren’t exactly memory holes. Editors don’t approve all requests. Violent felonies, such as murder and assault, and crimes against children aren’t subject to review, nor are most stories about corruption, celebrities or public officials. At most newspapers, only misdemeanor stories that are five years old or felonies that are 10 years old qualify. Perhaps the best thing about this movement is that it recognizes archived stories as live documents, subject to correction and revision for accuracy’s sake. For too long, crime reporters have stowed their flawed stories in a memory hole of their own. This didn’t matter so much when the only usable newspaper archives were preserved on microfilm and hard to search. But as more and more publications have placed their archives online, the cost of searching the back pages for dirt — or even dust — on people has plummeted toward zero. By making the past so visibly present, Google has exposed the weakness of old copy. The press should welcome the chance to right the wrongs they commit in old stories, and this movement pushes editors in that direction.

But can we justify rewriting newspaper archives because old but accurate stories embarrass people? Exercising a right to be forgotten obviously helps those who wish to shield their past from scrutiny. But it inflicts potential harms on job recruiters, loan officers, prospective business partners, dates and others who want an accurate gauge of someone’s long-term reputation. As a journalism handbook put it a century ago, crime coverage isn’t solely about feeding prurient interest. It warns the public of criminal activities, making the community safer….

The call to revise old stories wouldn’t be happening if newspapers hadn’t made their archives available to the Google search engine, which made mass searches possible. Had newspapers withheld their archives from the Google crawler, people would have to search one newspaper at a time for names. The Bangor Daily News seems to get this. If you petition the Daily News about an embarrassing story and it approves your request, it won’t delete your name from the archives. It will merely blind the Google search from seeing it….

There’s something quaint about the right-to-be-forgotten movement. Crime news has traditionally ranked as the most popular topic in the press, just after weather. Back when newspapers were fat and newsrooms were full, the crime blotter filled the pages. Following the great newspaper collapse of the late aughts, newsroom staffs were cut, which meant fewer journalists ended up reporting from the police blotter and fewer column inches were given to the coverage of crime, driving down the crimes reported….

The right-to-be-forgotten proponents have done us a great service by underscoring how good journalists are at publishing news about arrests but how wretched they are recording innocence, exoneration or dropped charges. But the solution to this journalistic shortcoming isn’t to blank the names of suspects from old stories or to hide them from Google. If the arrest of a suspect is newsworthy enough to be reported in a newspaper, the exoneration or the dropping of charges should be equally newsworthy. Newspapers have no excuse for not updating old stories to reflect the changed status of a suspect. To the contrary, newspapers would become more accurate and more useful if they routinely updated these stories in their archives. As a practical matter, editors could attach a “tickler” to arrest stories reminding them monthly to add updates until the cases are resolved.

As for hiding or blurring stories about the confessed or convicted just because time has passed, we can’t afford to be so generous. We can call out the press for having made a botch of crime coverage in the past, most recently with the exploitative “mug shot galleries” so many newspapers tossed up on the web and have now shuttered. Journalists can and should question police accounts of crime, which can bear little semblance to the truth. But if a crime story is true and the reporting is fair, a newspaper has nothing to apologize for, even if the story burdens its subject years after the fact. The newspaper’s responsibility to its readers comes first. We should not be so eager to unring history’s bell.

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