The Boston Globe announced a new program that will allow people to ask the newspaper to update or anonymize past coverage of them online. The “Fresh Start” initiative is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequity.
Similar to “right to forget” programs that have cropped up in a number of newsrooms across the country, the undertaking is meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.
“It was never our intent to have a short and relatively inconsequential Globe story affect the futures of the ordinary people who might be the subjects,” said Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe. “Our sense, given the criminal justice system, is that this has had a disproportionate impact on people of color. The idea behind the program is to start addressing it.”
Jason Tuohey, managing editor for digital, said the Globe would consider all requests and would set an especially high bar for updating or anonymizing stories about public figures or serious crimes.
To apply, people fill out a short form online with an explanation of why they are requesting a review, including any relevant court documents.
Similar efforts have sprung up internationally in recent years as newsrooms grapple with the long-term impacts even minor stories can have in the digital age. The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a similar online initiative in 2019, curtailing the use of mugshots and allowing people who have received court expungements to apply for their names to be removed from the site. The Globe’s initiative does not require people to get a court expungement, in which the court permanently erases a criminal record, before applying.
The Globe created a Fresh Start committee over the summer, made up of 10 employees from across the Globe newsroom and sister site Boston.com, Tuohey said. The committee reached out to a range of informal consultants, including formerly incarcerated people, professors of journalism ethics, and advocates for survivors of domestic violence.
Tuohey said the initiative is an experiment and the committee will examine each case individually. Possible outcomes include removing certain stories from Google search results or anonymizing names in stories.
Altering or delisting some information online raises thorny questions for media outlets that have long viewed themselves as the first draft of history, said Deborah Dwyer, a fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism who studies the ethics and practicalities of unpublishing.
“Are you going to accept requests from corporations? From government agencies?” Dwyer asked. “I caution people that just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.”
(Tuohey said the Globe would accept requests from individuals only.)
Dwyer said initiatives like this that require people to apply also raise questions about who will hear about them and therefore benefit.
The Globe plans to advertise the initiative through social media and sustained community outreach. Still, Dwyer said, a prominent white attorney who reads the Globe and was arrested for driving under the influence may be more likely to apply to have his name removed from an article than a Black teenager of lower socioeconomic status arrested for the same crime who does not read the Globe.
“Is it fair that only the people who raise their hand get a fresh start?” Dwyer asked.
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, said the public defender agency welcomed the initiative, calling it “fantastic.”
Often, he said, clients of the CPCS are written about early in the criminal process. Reporters rarely follow up when the initial information turns out to be wrong or less serious than initially reported, he said. In other cases, people are convicted and serve their sentences, but when they apply for a job, articles about past misdeeds prevent them from succeeding.
“They’re trying to put their life back together and move on and be a productive member of society, and the press around whatever it was that got them into trouble continues to haunt them,” Benedetti said.
Tuohey said the initiative was part of a broader drive in the Globe newsroom to update criminal justice reporting.
“It’s changing how we look at our coverage,” he said. “If we change a story like this with the Fresh Start committee, why would we assign one like it next week?”
For more information about the new program, go to www.bostonglobe.com/freshstart.