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Editor's column: Dangers of deleting news

Vacations are not the time to be obsessively looking at work emails — and I wasn’t...for the most part. But in came not one, but two somewhat provocative emails.
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Vacations are not the time to be obsessively looking at work emails — and I wasn’t...for the most part. But in came not one, but two somewhat provocative emails. In both cases, the writer threatened to take the Richmond News to court if we didn’t remove a 20-something-year-old news story.

The requests (veiled threats) bring up what I believe to be a pressing issue facing all editors — the request to delete old stories in a digital age. In the past, the request would have been a non-starter. Unless there is a factual error or someone was in physical danger, the story stayed.

In both cases, the story in question names an individual who was charged, and subsequently convicted, of drug trafficking. The person went to jail, turned his life around and has since been granted a pardon from the parole board. (Actually, they’re not called pardons any more, rather “a suspension of record.” In 2015, it was determined that the word “pardon” could imply forgiveness, and given the damage that may have been done to others as a result of a crime, it’s not the government’s place to grant forgiveness.)

But whatever you call it, the idea is that there comes a point when a person, regardless of their criminal past, should be allowed to move on with their lives without the burden of a record that could jeopardize employment, travel or the ability to hold any position with a fiduciary duty.

Granting pardons/record suspensions is nothing new. What is new is the power and reach of the world wide web and the fact most of us have access to it with the touch of our phones. So while the parole board may have suspended an individual’s record on all government sites, if you Google their name, up comes that 20-year-old news story. (Back in the old days, you’d have to know when the story was published, go to the library and look it up on microfiche. That rarely happened, so the record was as good as gone.)

I’m a firm believer in second chances and giving people the opportunity to reintegrate. However, I also believe in our responsibility as a newspaper to provide a historical record. And I really don’t like the idea of reaching back in time and mucking around with the facts.

A crime happened, should we pretend it didn’t by deleting the whole story? What about the others involved in the crime, do they get a pass? Or, should I go in and just take out that one individual’s name? But that could create an error by implying fewer people were involved.

What I offered to do, in one case, is write a follow-up story that not only describes the course of the individual’s life but also addresses the discrimination faced by people with criminal records. I thought it could be a great opportunity to look at how we expect people to change but create barriers to letting them do that. The lawyer wanted none of it.

These aren’t the only requests I’ve had to remove a story, which brings up the slippery slope. If we remove one, where does it stop? This could set a dangerous precedent.

Newspapers have a responsibility to not just document events of the day, but also maintain the integrity of that archive. Deleting or rewriting stories challenges that creed at its core.