Forever and ever - Shawn Loughlin editorial
One mistake can haunt someone for the rest of their life. That has always been true and it remains true today. Some newspapers, however, are looking to remedy their role in that process, working to alter the past with the help of those who have seen their lives affected by a past arrest or incident.
The Boston Globe is now one of a handful of newspapers that are allowing people to petition for additions to old stories involving them or to have their name scrubbed from them entirely. The Globe is said to be prioritizing minor crimes, very old crimes and stories involving non-criminal behaviour that might be considered “embarrassing” for some.
The Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” initiative joins similar projects ongoing at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Philadelphia Inquirer, while The Kansas City Star and The Los Angeles Times have recently published apologies for how their coverage of crime contributed to racial inequalities in their cities.
As is noted in The Washington Post story on the initiative, there had been pushback from newspapers to consider such a thing, which, in a way, aims to rewrite history. However, from a compassionate side, some of these older transgressions are literally ruining a person’s life at a time when a Google search of a potential significant other or new hire takes mere milliseconds for worldwide results.
As journalists we deal in facts, but have a legal responsibility to tell the whole story. If The Citizen, for example, reports on someone being charged with driving drunk, that is fair game, as it is an historical fact. Credible news organizations, however, have a responsibility to then see that process through. So, if the aforementioned accused is then found not guilty, he/she has a reasonable expectation that The Citizen would then report on that too.
Some websites posing as news outlets have, at times, sought to exploit the situation I explained above, assuring readers that the historical fact of being charged isn’t changed by a not guilty verdict, instead opting to charge a fee to remove stories that bear their name.
While it could be argued that this initiative is not so different from what The Boston Globe is proposing, the reasons behind the two couldn’t be more different. One seeks to better the lives of those who made a mistake, while the other aims to land one final kick in the stomach in what has surely already been a long, hard road.
As journalists, the cornerstone of our lives is that we deal in facts – inconvenient as they may be at times. And while the term “cancel culture” has taken hold with many as a fact, one look at government officials (both north and south of the border), celebrities, musicians and actors shows the public is more than willing to forget than you think – if you’re famous. The real cancel culture is more likely to be found in the stories The Globe and others discuss: people who did something stupid and misguided years ago who now can’t find a job because of it. And though you can’t argue that it was the people in question who first put themselves in this position, we like to think of ourselves as a forgiving people, so what The Globe is doing is a first step towards acceptance that perhaps people shouldn’t be handed a de facto life sentence as a result.
As a journalist, rewriting history leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but to consider a way to help those seeking to better their lives is a step towards being the kind of people we want to be, applying the Golden Rule to others, treating minor past transgressions as slight missteps along an otherwise righteous path.