Florida Man forever: Do people mentioned in crime stories have the right to be forgotten?

(Marana Police Department via AP, file)

An interesting argument is playing out in the media about whether or not people mentioned in crime stories have the right to be forgotten. The basic idea is that in the not-so-distant past people who were mentioned in local or regional crime stories would get their names in the papers and then those papers would be discarded and, at worst, the paper itself or some local library might keep a microfiche collection of what had been published. So, in theory, you could still look up those names but in practice most people would never bother.

But with the advent of the internet all of that began to change. Now anything that’s published online is potentially there forever. And some of those local and regional papers have also put their entire archives online (there’s often a fee to access the articles). So the internet becomes a kind of permanent archive of lots of things including people mentioned in reference to arrests and minor crimes. That means potential employers may find those names before they decide to hire someone. Is that fair? Imagine for a moment that you once did something dumb that became a “Florida Man…” story in a local paper. Should the shame follow for your life or even beyond your death?

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wrote about the changing standards earlier this month:

The long-term impact of petty-crime coverage flashed into the media-news realm this week, as the Associated Press announced some directives of its own on this front. No longer would the wire service publish names in minor crime stories, “which we sometimes cover and pick up from member news organizations as one-off briefs because they are ‘odd’ and of interest to our customers,” writes John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Daniszewski said the issue has been troubling the AP for several years. “In journalism, one of our principles is not to create harm unnecessarily,” he says. In discussions on the changes, Daniszewski said AP staffers noted that people of color suffer “disproportionately” from the long tail of these stories.

A consensus appears to be emerging among newspaper publishers that crime coverage and its stickiness in a search-engine world need a systemic update. “We could be and probably have at times been perpetuating stereotypes or creating stigmas,” says Maribel Perez Wadsworth, president of Gannett’s USA Today Network, whose sites bailed on mugshot galleries starting in 2018 and scaled back small-crime coverage. “I think it is really important that we step back and be less reflexive and be more enterprising in our approach to this coverage.”

Some outlets like the Cleveland Plain Dealer are soliciting input from readers on stories where names should be erased:

We’re giving people a chance to clear the record. If there’s a dated story on our site that is causing you harm, we’ll consider removing your name from it. We won’t do this for stories about serious violent or sex crimes, nor will we entertain requests involving public corruption.

For the record, no one is suggesting that people convicted of violent crimes will get their names removed from the papers. The idea often seems to involve misdemeanors or possibly even arrests where no charges are ever brought.

I’m really of two minds about this idea. On the one hand, I really don’t see the harm of removing names for arrests where no one was charged. And I can see removing names from the kind of Florida Man human interest stories which often involve people doing something spectacularly embarrassing but not necessarily violent. For instance, that photo above is of a young woman (she is named in the photo caption) who was arrested on suspicion of DUI on her way to her own wedding back in 2018. She eventually pleaded guilty to DUI and served two days in jail.

In a more general sense, as we see cancel culture proponents relying on things people said or did a decade ago as a way to punish them, the idea of a right to be forgotten seems somewhat appealing as a broader cultural reaction. In other words, it would be great if the next time someone brought up a decade-old tweet most people would just shrug and say it was old news not grounds to fire or deplatform someone.

On the other hand there is something a bit Orwellian about removing names from the paper even long after they were published. It moves us into territory where I can easily see leftists pushing never to print any names in the paper on the grounds that criminals should be represented in the news based on their racial proportion in the population.

Over the weekend Politico published a piece on the right to be forgotten which points out that embarrassing people by publishing their names in the paper is part of deterring crime.

Can we justify rewriting newspaper archives because old but accurate stories embarrass people? Exercising a right to be forgotten obviously helps those who wish to shield their past from scrutiny. But it inflicts potential harms on job recruiters, loan officers, prospective business partners, dates and others who want an accurate gauge of someone’s long-term reputation. As a journalism handbook put it a century ago, crime coverage isn’t solely about feeding prurient interest. It warns the public of criminal activities, making the community safer. It informs them of how well the police are doing their job of maintaining the peace. It aids in the punishment and deterrence of crime…

As for hiding or blurring stories about the confessed or convicted just because time has passed, we can’t afford to be so generous. We can call out the press for having made a botch of crime coverage in the past, most recently with the exploitative “mug shot galleries” so many newspapers tossed up on the web and have now shuttered. Journalists can and should question police accounts of crime, which can bear little semblance to the truth. But if a crime story is true and the reporting is fair, a newspaper has nothing to apologize for, even if the story burdens its subject years after the fact. The newspaper’s responsibility to its readers comes first. We should not be so eager to unring history’s bell.

I find myself agreeing with that last sentiment. Leaving names in stories leaves people open to being canceled but removing them seems to open up a whole new avenue for revising history in a way that seems to protect the criminal over and above his or her potential victims in the public. Of course that assumes that the person is guilty. If nothing else, I think there is a good case for following up on stories where someone is named so that people can learn if the individual was charged, convicted or cleared of wrongdoing. If the name was worth mentioning in the first place then it ought to be worth mentioning (or updating) when the case is eventually resolved.