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Newsroom Initiatives Allow Subjects Of Past Crime Reporting To Reclaim Their Stories

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If your name shows up in a news story, it could be a source of pride. Or if the story is about a crime, it could have the opposite effect - hurting your job prospects, affecting your housing, even your personal life for years. Now many newspapers are asking how long someone should have to pay for a mistake, and some are allowing people to request that their mug shots or names be removed from certain old stories. John Watson teaches journalism ethics at American University, and he joins us to discuss this.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN WATSON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So The Boston Globe just announced an initiative called Fresh Start. The Cleveland Plain Dealer started a similar program a few years ago. The Philadelphia Inquirer is looking into this. Briefly describe what these newspapers are allowing people to do.

WATSON: They are generally setting aside a long-standing and almost inviolable journalism ethical principle. They will, in some instances, change a reported news story or even eliminate it depending on the individual circumstances. This is sort of in accord with a Western European journalism practice based on their concept of the right to be forgotten.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, Google has actually been forced in court to remove some results in Europe. And now newspapers are almost volunteering to do something similar.

WATSON: Yes, it's very popular, but it really challenges well-established ethical principles.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, you describe this as a long-standing and inviolable principle of journalism ethics. Do you think it's appropriate for this tower to come crashing down? Is this a rule that demands to be broken?

WATSON: No, it's not a clear-cut case of whether the citadel should be smashed because the ethical principle is based on the fact that journalism is indeed the first draft of history. And many historians, when they begin to write about a period in history, they will go to the news accounts because those are the day-by-day, highly detailed accounts of what's going on.

SHAPIRO: But, of course, as you're aware, there's a big difference between a piece of paper with someone's name in it that you might be able to get out of the library on microfiche years later and a Google result that pops up when you type somebody's name in a decade later as the first result of their name.

WATSON: Right. And this is why the citadel has to be reexamined.

SHAPIRO: There is obviously a racial justice component to this. Explain why this is being talked about in the context of the racial justice movement that has taken off in America recently.

WATSON: Historically, since the early 20th century and probably even beyond that, crime stories about people of color have been a major mainstay of American journalism. And it wasn't necessary that the crimes these people were associated with were major crimes; it was just that the American public had an insatiable appetite for these things, largely because it confirmed some of their prejudices about these people of color. So there's a long-standing list of recriminations against the news media for feeding into this.

SHAPIRO: Is it difficult to draw the line? I mean, I once received a message from a Trump supporter who I interviewed for a story, and they didn't say anything offensive or commit a crime, but they didn't want everyone who Googles them years from now to immediately see them tied to a political belief they held at one point in time. Is that a person whose name should be removed from a story?

WATSON: In my opinion, no. I'm the adviser for some student publications at my university, and we have had this come up more often than most people might realize. And generally, I've advised the students not to erase them.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel lucky to have a name like John Watson, that is common enough (laughter) that no one thing you do is going to rise to the top of a Google search for John Watson?

WATSON: Well, the thing is, millions of John Watson events are at the top - millions.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Well, this John Watson is an associate professor of journalism ethics at American University. And we appreciate your talking to us today. Thank you very much.

WATSON: No problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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