NEW YORK (AP) — The Associated Press said Tuesday it will no longer run the names of people charged with minor crimes, out of concern that such stories can have a long, damaging afterlife on the internet that can make it hard for individuals to move on with their lives.
In so doing, one of the world’s biggest newsgathering organizations has waded into a debate over an issue that wasn’t of much concern before the rise of search engines, when finding information on people often required going through yellowed newspaper clippings.
Often, the AP will publish a minor story — say, about a person arrested for stripping naked and dancing drunkenly atop a bar — that will hold some brief interest regionally or even nationally and be forgotten the next day.
But the name of the person arrested will live on forever online, even if the charges are dropped or the person is acquitted, said John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards. And that can hurt someone’s ability to get a job, join a club or run for office years later.
The AP, in a directive sent out to its journalists across the country, said it will no longer name suspects or transmit photographs of them in brief stories about minor crimes when there is little chance the organization will cover the case beyond the initial arrest.
The person’s identity is generally not newsworthy beyond local communities, Daniszewski said.
The AP said it will also not link to local newspaper or broadcast stories about such incidents where the arrested person’s name or mugshot might be used. The AP will also not do stories driven mainly by particularly embarrassing mugshots.
The policy will not apply to serious crimes, such as those involving violence or abuse of the public trust, or cases of a fugitive on the run.
“As a leader in the news industry, AP making this change is going to have a ripple effect and will prompt some organizations that don’t have this on their radar right now to stop and take a look at these practices,” said Deborah Dwyer, a doctoral student who is studying the issue and runs the website unpublishingthenews.com
Several organizations already are doing so, driven in part by requests from people whose time in the news has lived on via the internet.
The Boston Globe, for example, announced earlier this year an appeals process where it would consider, on a case-by-case basis, removing old stories from its archives. It tied its announcement to a review of policies prompted by a racial reckoning.
“We are not in the business of rewriting the past, but we don’t want to stand in the way of a regular person’s ability to craft their future,” the Globe said in announcing the effort.
In response, columnist Nicholas Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote in February that news organizations “shouldn’t muck around with history.”
“Trying to rewrite the past, or even trying to hide from view what has already been reported, is almost always a mistake,” he wrote.
The AP’s policy change likewise triggered a vigorous debate on social media.
In a 2018 survey conducted by Dwyer, some 80 percent of news organizations had some policy about removing stories from archives, up from less than half a decade earlier. But in some cases, the policies aren’t written down, aren’t talked about in public or aren’t even publicized in their own newsrooms, Dwyer said.
The AP has resisted efforts to get stories removed altogether. It has long had a policy of clarifying or updating even very old stories with news of an acquittal, for example, “but a story that is truthful and accurate on the day we wrote it, we’d consider that sacrosanct,” Daniszewski said. “We’re not going to rewrite history.”
Dwyer said her research has found a majority of Americans believe they have the right to ask news organizations to remove stories from archives, and would expect articles to be updated if charges were dropped. Yet at the same time, many people believe that an organization’s archive would be less trustworthy if it allowed stories to be scrubbed from it.