I got a call a few weeks ago from a young man in our community. Nearly 10 years ago his name was in our paper for a low-level drug arrest. Now, in his late-20s, that article still trails him.

When employers Google his name, the arrest is the first thing that comes up. Friends, neighbors, and if he ever has children — it’s all there for them to see. He made a mistake at 18 and he can’t shake it, thanks to our reporting and the internet.

In the old days, your name would appear in print, you’d take your lumps and we’d all move on. Pretty much the only way to access it later was to dig through a newspaper morgue or microfiche at the local library. Not too many people were willing to do that, and soon the story faded.

Things are different today, and that has prompted some thinking in media on two fronts. We’re part of it.

There are two issues at play here — that a story never goes away on the web, and how we approach crime reporting in general.

Clean Slate

This week, we launched an initiative called Clean Slate. It’s an appeals process. If you want an online story updated, modified or deleted, fill out a form online and make your case (www.gvnews.com/cleanslate). There is a place to put the link to the story, any court documents you might have (not required) and plenty of room to talk to us.

If you’re challenging our reporting, you likely won’t get very far. We write most of this off police reports and make no claim other than what we’ve written is “according to the report.”

But we know the article simply represents a snapshot in time — Jane Doe was arrested on suspicion of…” But we rarely follow low-level arrests all the way through the court system. So that snapshot often becomes the last word for our readers — Jane is guilty in their eyes. That’s not fair and it’s not accurate.

Often, charges are reduced or dismissed, and sometimes cases are settled out of court. While it’s accurate that Jane was arrested, we can’t escape the reality that most people think an arrest equates to conviction. And since this is often all we’ll ever read about Jane, the arrest defines her. That’s not right, either.

If you think we’ve gone soft, you don’t know us very well. Clean Slate doesn’t suggest a person didn’t commit a crime and isn’t responsible for their actions. It’s an acknowledgement that information is more readily available today but that at some point a person’s privacy outweighs the news value to the community. Causing harm years down the road is not the intent and serves no purpose.

I’ll give you another example from our community. A few years ago, a 27-year-old woman came into my office. When she was 19, she was arrested for prostitution. She was guilty, she told me, and her name was in the paper. Now, eight years later, she has a young son, earned a college degree and was working in the medical field. Her fear? That her son would soon be on the computer and would very likely look up mom’s name. So would his friends.

I’m glad she got her life together, but that isn’t a requirement for Clean Slate. We just don’t see news value eight years after a 19 year old was arrested for prostitution.

We’re rolling out Clean Slate across our company, though we’ve dealt with plenty of cases already where it was thumbs-up as much as thumbs-down. Who was told no? A request from a man to remove a story about his reckless decision to sell a bad product that could have harmed his customers. He was fired but was trying to get back into the same line of work and potential employers kept finding the story online. Good. Our work continues to protect that community and it won’t come down.

Our other challenge

The best way to tackle a problem is before it becomes one.

That’s why we’re taking a look at crime coverage. Many of our newspapers get the cop log and reprint it word for word in the paper — your boss ran a stop sign, your Sunday school teacher shoplifted a candy bar (it happens), the neighborhood kids get caught hopping the fence to the public pool in the middle of the night (personally guilty).

Police blotters are great entertainment for a lot of communities (until your name shows up). But that’s not the place to entertain readers — it borders on mean-spirited.

But let’s come back to our original reason for a lot of this — we’ve no intention and don’t have the staff to follow these arrests through the courts, leaving the impression that the accused are guilty.

Big crimes — murder, sexual assault, anything involving public officials, or stupid people hurting others — yes, your name will be in print. It’s a community service.

All the others? Changes are coming.

Let us know what you think; this is an evolving process for us and the media. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.

— Dan Shearer