Newspaper adds a sunset to searching police public records

“Please take my story down.”

If you’re an editor, you’ve gotten that plea, perhaps many times.

The answer of the future may start in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The Southeast Missourian announced a policy to block search engines from court and police public records and subsequent articles after six years.

“Our policy up until now has been we don’t take anything down,” said Jon Rust, publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

The volume of local requests and an international trend factored in to the change.

Europe’s “Right to be forgotten,” the General Data Protection Regulation, went into effect in May 2018 and has helped focus a lot of attention on privacy rights for citizens in Europe and around the world.

That regulation allows people to request that their personal information saved by corporations and governments be deleted. It also includes a process to ask Google and other search engines to stop displaying links to certain news articles that pop up in the results from an online search.

That aspect prompted Rust’s compromise regarding removing information from his website.

The Southeast Missourian policy, which went into effect July 25, 2018, automatically “delists” the daily crime report from search engine accessibility after six years of being online. There was no specific rationale for the six-year timeframe, Rust said, noting that the staff discussed various typical scenarios and thought six years bridged the gap of people not having indiscretions follow them around but also a long enough period to establish a track record of staying out of trouble.

Also, people can request that staff-written stories about misdemeanors also get delisted after six years, but the newsroom will make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. It gives the newsroom important oversight but, Rust said, specific guidelines have also been established to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Neither of these changes will affect the results saved in the archive — which is not the same thing as a general Google search. A direct search of the archive will show the information in perpetuity, Rust said.

“At our company, one of our mottos is: ‘Everything we do should be measured by the test of truth and grace,’” Rust said. “Something disproportionate happens with a person’s identity when a crime charge is the lead result on a search engine and a story about the charge being dismissed or reduced is not easy to find.”

That’s really the heart of the matter, according to Bill Church, senior vice president for news at Gatehouse Media, one of the largest publishers of locally-based media in the nation with operations in 37 states.

» Read more on The Southeast Missourian policy

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