News

Editorial: Why we're changing our policy on reporting arrests

At age 19, Joe Smith, home from college and enjoying catching up with some old high school friends the night after Thanksgiving at a downtown bar, gets drunk and winds up arrested at 2 a.m. for being drunk in public, disorderly conduct, assault with a deadly weapon (a beer bottle) and resisting arrest.

Local media include the young man's name in an article about the arrest, as has long been the tradition, satisfying readers' appetite for details of crime stories.

When the case gets submitted by police to the District Attorney's Office, the DA decides the incident doesn't warrant prosecution and offers Mr. Smith three months' probation in exchange for a no-contest plea to disorderly conduct. The young man takes the deal and, after serving his probation successfully, asks the court to expunge the case from its records, as allowed in California and most states.

Since Mr. Smith's name is so common, his arrest will likely not follow him around the rest of his life, in spite of its being on the internet as an archived story of the local newspaper. He is lucky, only because of his name.

But what if his name were Bonifacio Poedoseporo? The one short news story on his initial arrest could be the first and possibly only result in a Google search for his name by a future employer, even 10 or 15 years later.

What's local journalism worth to you?

Support Almanac Online for as little as $5/month.

Join

While the above facts and names are made up, the scenario is typical of a growing ethical and moral problem facing news organizations, whose content lives on forever on the internet rather than vanishing into the basement archives of local libraries, as it did not long ago.

When we first began receiving pleas for us to remove such content from our archives by those arrested years earlier, we took the hard line that most newspapers have long taken -- our story was factually correct and our policy is to not alter the permanent record of the news.

But as these requests multiplied (Embarcadero Media, owner of the Almanac and our three sister papers, now receives two or three each month on average) we began looking at the issue from the perspective of the person arrested and the disproportionality and unfairness of the lifelong effects on someone with an unusual name.

After reviewing countless instances involving the arrests of young people, many of them with unusual names, we began looking at this partly as a discrimination and social-justice issue. In a nation of immigrants with many unusual last names, why should our reporting and editing decisions have disproportionate impacts depending on a person's ethnicity, or simply the uniqueness of his or her name?

In addition, in many instances police will arrest and book suspects for every conceivable crime that could be charged, despite knowing that the charges ultimately filed by the DA are often much less serious.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

Stay informed

Get the latest local news and information sent straight to your inbox.

In crafting what we think is a thoughtful policy on removing names from archived stories, we discovered that removing a name from our story doesn't affect the Google search result for that person, nor does it solve the problem of "public shaming" websites that grab our original crime stories and propagate the information for their own financial gain.

So this led us to a re-evaluation of how we approach the initial reporting of arrests, as well as the publication of booking photos provided by the police.

In balancing our First Amendment right to publish information on any arrest, an arrestee's right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and the public's right to know the details of crime taking place in the community, we formulated a new policy, implemented last month, on when we will (and won't) report the names of those arrested by law enforcement.

Our new policy states that, except in limited instances, news stories will not name those arrested (or include photos) until they are formally charged by the district attorney. The exceptions are the arrest of a prominent person in the community or a public safety or school employee; if the arrest was for a major violent crime or the result of an extended police or FBI investigation; or, if in the judgment of the editor, the crime was widely reported and is of broad public interest or concern.

The policy is intentionally flexible because every situation is different. And we make no promises about later adding to a story the name of a person charged for a crime by the DA after leaving the name out of the original story. Our news judgment of the public interest in publishing the person's identity will guide that determination.

As only one news source, our change in policy won't by itself solve the problems described above. And it will probably encourage some readers to look elsewhere for the information we won't be publishing. But we think the media has a responsibility to regularly look at the consequences of its editorial practices and to modify them as circumstances change, as has certainly happened due to the permanence of information on the internet.

Click here to read a summary of Embarcadero guidelines for reporting the names of those arrested.

A front row seat to local high school sports.

Check out our new newsletter, the Playbook.

Follow AlmanacNews.com and The Almanac on Twitter @almanacnews, Facebook and on Instagram @almanacnews for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editorial: Why we're changing our policy on reporting arrests

Uploaded: Fri, Nov 3, 2017, 11:30 am

At age 19, Joe Smith, home from college and enjoying catching up with some old high school friends the night after Thanksgiving at a downtown bar, gets drunk and winds up arrested at 2 a.m. for being drunk in public, disorderly conduct, assault with a deadly weapon (a beer bottle) and resisting arrest.

Local media include the young man's name in an article about the arrest, as has long been the tradition, satisfying readers' appetite for details of crime stories.

When the case gets submitted by police to the District Attorney's Office, the DA decides the incident doesn't warrant prosecution and offers Mr. Smith three months' probation in exchange for a no-contest plea to disorderly conduct. The young man takes the deal and, after serving his probation successfully, asks the court to expunge the case from its records, as allowed in California and most states.

Since Mr. Smith's name is so common, his arrest will likely not follow him around the rest of his life, in spite of its being on the internet as an archived story of the local newspaper. He is lucky, only because of his name.

But what if his name were Bonifacio Poedoseporo? The one short news story on his initial arrest could be the first and possibly only result in a Google search for his name by a future employer, even 10 or 15 years later.

While the above facts and names are made up, the scenario is typical of a growing ethical and moral problem facing news organizations, whose content lives on forever on the internet rather than vanishing into the basement archives of local libraries, as it did not long ago.

When we first began receiving pleas for us to remove such content from our archives by those arrested years earlier, we took the hard line that most newspapers have long taken -- our story was factually correct and our policy is to not alter the permanent record of the news.

But as these requests multiplied (Embarcadero Media, owner of the Almanac and our three sister papers, now receives two or three each month on average) we began looking at the issue from the perspective of the person arrested and the disproportionality and unfairness of the lifelong effects on someone with an unusual name.

After reviewing countless instances involving the arrests of young people, many of them with unusual names, we began looking at this partly as a discrimination and social-justice issue. In a nation of immigrants with many unusual last names, why should our reporting and editing decisions have disproportionate impacts depending on a person's ethnicity, or simply the uniqueness of his or her name?

In addition, in many instances police will arrest and book suspects for every conceivable crime that could be charged, despite knowing that the charges ultimately filed by the DA are often much less serious.

In crafting what we think is a thoughtful policy on removing names from archived stories, we discovered that removing a name from our story doesn't affect the Google search result for that person, nor does it solve the problem of "public shaming" websites that grab our original crime stories and propagate the information for their own financial gain.

So this led us to a re-evaluation of how we approach the initial reporting of arrests, as well as the publication of booking photos provided by the police.

In balancing our First Amendment right to publish information on any arrest, an arrestee's right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty and the public's right to know the details of crime taking place in the community, we formulated a new policy, implemented last month, on when we will (and won't) report the names of those arrested by law enforcement.

Our new policy states that, except in limited instances, news stories will not name those arrested (or include photos) until they are formally charged by the district attorney. The exceptions are the arrest of a prominent person in the community or a public safety or school employee; if the arrest was for a major violent crime or the result of an extended police or FBI investigation; or, if in the judgment of the editor, the crime was widely reported and is of broad public interest or concern.

The policy is intentionally flexible because every situation is different. And we make no promises about later adding to a story the name of a person charged for a crime by the DA after leaving the name out of the original story. Our news judgment of the public interest in publishing the person's identity will guide that determination.

As only one news source, our change in policy won't by itself solve the problems described above. And it will probably encourage some readers to look elsewhere for the information we won't be publishing. But we think the media has a responsibility to regularly look at the consequences of its editorial practices and to modify them as circumstances change, as has certainly happened due to the permanence of information on the internet.

Click here to read a summary of Embarcadero guidelines for reporting the names of those arrested.

Comments

johngslater
Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 3, 2017 at 12:42 pm
johngslater, Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 3, 2017 at 12:42 pm

Why are prominent people treated differently, doesn't everyone have the same right to privacy?


David B
Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 3, 2017 at 3:11 pm
David B, Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 3, 2017 at 3:11 pm

I respect that you've put a lot of thought into his, and there are complex issues and no easy answer.


Mark
Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 3, 2017 at 4:34 pm
Mark, Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 3, 2017 at 4:34 pm

The new policy is very consistent with our constitutional and judicial framework where an accused person is innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt. It is also consistent with affording those convicted, after having served their punishment, the potential for redemption and the opportunity to get a fresh start.


Peter Carpenter
Registered user
Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 3, 2017 at 5:08 pm
Peter Carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood
Registered user
on Nov 3, 2017 at 5:08 pm

"The new policy is very consistent with our constitutional and judicial framework where an accused person is innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt."

Unless the Almanac unilaterally declares you to be a " prominent person in the community " and then there are no limits on what the Almanac will publish about you.

How commendable that this is the way the Almanac "rewards" those who serve our community.


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Nov 3, 2017 at 5:50 pm
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Nov 3, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Almanac:

either this applies to everyone or it applies to no one. You don't think a person that doesn't happen to be "prominent in our community" can do something stupid that can screw them in later life? It's ok to screw up someone's life by publishing their name because they're not prominent in the community? This a blatant attempt to protect yourself from lawsuits by "prominent" people in our community. If you're not going to publish names of SOME accused persons then you shouldn't be publishing ANY.


Read it again
Atherton: other
on Nov 3, 2017 at 6:08 pm
Read it again, Atherton: other
on Nov 3, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Menlo Voter, it's the opposite. They're saying they reserve the right to publish if the individual is prominent.


Menlo Voter.
Registered user
Menlo Park: other
on Nov 4, 2017 at 9:18 am
Menlo Voter., Menlo Park: other
Registered user
on Nov 4, 2017 at 9:18 am

read it again:

I miss read. In any event it should be all or nothing.


Different strokes
Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2017 at 4:09 am
Different strokes, Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 5, 2017 at 4:09 am

Silicon Valley millionaire Luke Lonergan never got in his name in the paper when he was arrested for possession pornograhy in a multi-agency sweep in Santa Clara and San Mateo County several years ago. But men who were minorities and poor who were arrested in that same sweep got their names plastered all over the papers. Lonergan had already finished serving his very light term in jail by the time reporters got wind of his case. I suspect many names of wealthy and prominent who are arrested are never released to the local press. That is an issue that should be investigated.


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.