LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
On the Internet, can you really escape your past? That's a question some news organizations around the country are considering. Newspapers in cities like Atlanta and Boston are revisiting old stories and asking whether people they once covered deserve a fresh start. A newsroom in Cleveland has been doing this for a couple of years, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Monica Ruiz had such affection for her niece's longtime boyfriend that she calls him her nephew.
MONICA RUIZ: He graduated from high school early, two years early because he had a baby. He enlisted in the military. He, you know, owned properties. He had a business. He was somebody who always put family first.
FOLKENFLIK: The man was charged with assault a year ago after an altercation at a convenience store. And then he died of a heart-related ailment before the charges came to trial. Ruiz said she and her niece wanted to set up a community foundation in his name but that a single Google search of him yielded the most popular hits - among them, a story from cleveland.com about his arrest.
RUIZ: Your life, even if it's just 25 years old, it can't be defined by one day, one instant. And he leaves behind a beautiful little girl who is wise beyond her years. And that's not how she remembers him. That's not how we remember him. And that's not how we want the world to remember him.
FOLKENFLIK: Chris Quinn is editor of cleveland.com and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He agreed to pull the man's name out of the story at Ruiz's request. The altered story remains up.
Starting in 2018, cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer began to offer a simple, short Web form, asking your name, what stories you want changed or removed and why. Quinn says he still doesn't know if he made the right call in response to Ruiz.
CHRIS QUINN: This is hard stuff. Nobody's done it before. We don't have best practices. I mean, we're winging this because somebody had to do something.
FOLKENFLIK: Quinn says he and his team were inspired by the European Union's right to be forgotten, a law which lets people ask Google and other search engines to delist embarrassing and damaging stories, stories that can influence whether people got job interviews or loans or even second dates. For American news organizations, changing a story months or years later is rare. Changing a story that's correct is just about unheard of.
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JOHN WATSON: They are generally setting aside a longstanding and almost inviolable journalism ethical principle.
FOLKENFLIK: John Watson teaches media ethics at American University. He spoke to NPR's All Things Considered last month after The Boston Globe unveiled a similar program.
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WATSON: Journalism is indeed the first draft of history. And many historians, when they begin to write about a period in history, they will go through the news accounts because those are the day-by-day, highly detailed accounts of what's going on.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet some of those accounts may be unfair, even when factually accurate. That was particularly true for coverage in Cleveland between 2009 and 2013. Again, Chris Quinn.
QUINN: We had a reporter in those four years who was assigned to do very much what you would consider to be police and court blotter.
FOLKENFLIK: Every time someone was arrested and at every stage in the process - pop - there'd be another post for cleveland.com.
QUINN: We would list who was appearing in court that week, what they were appearing for, ran with mug shots in almost every case. It was lots and lots of very minor stuff.
FOLKENFLIK: Quinn says the site stopped that after 2013, and he says the inconsistency in coverage proves how unfair it was. Quinn says the papers also stopped running mug shots. After all, they're of people who have not yet been convicted of anything. He said this was a moral imperative.
But something bothered me. I called Quinn back and asked about those four years. I said, tell me about 2009 to 2013. Why so many crime blotter pieces in the first place? He said editors were trying to figure out how to make a profit on the paper's free website.
QUINN: You were trying to build your audience. This was an effort at that because we knew people like to read crime blotter things.
FOLKENFLIK: Quinn said the drive for crime-driven clickbait badly distorted news judgment.
QUINN: In the end, I wish we had not done it. I think a quarter (laughter) to a third of the requests we've received under our right to be forgotten involve those kinds of things. And we almost immediately take them down.
FOLKENFLIK: Think about what we know about race and the criminal justice system. Think about how often people get caught up in that system and what it means in an age in which reputations are defined by search engines. Quinn is at the forefront of a crop of news editors taking a hard look at the implications of how they have defined news.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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