Advance Local’s leads the charge to erase damaging information

By George Rodrigue

Advance Local

New York City, USA


When arrests make the news, even trivial crimes can become life sentences for perpetrators. Even if those arrested are acquitted or their convictions are expunged, a simple Internet search can turn up their names. When wary landlords and employers conduct such searches, people who have led blameless lives for decades can lose jobs or housing.

In Europe, public backlash led to the creation of a legal “right to erasure,” or the right to be forgotten. It allows citizens to petition search engine companies to remove references to damaging information. While the United States has no such legal requirement, some news organisations have made an ethical commitment to the right to be forgotten.

Advance Local’s, led by Content Vice President Chris Quinn, is a leader in that movement. It has been processing requests from citizens by hand since 2018. Recently, Google granted it US$200,000 to automate much of that work, with the understanding that it would share its code and workflow with other interested newsrooms.

People who commit trivial, non-violent crimes can end up paying for them years later. Advance Local's "Right to be Forgotten" programme works to change that.
People who commit trivial, non-violent crimes can end up paying for them years later. Advance Local's "Right to be Forgotten" programme works to change that.

Quinn explains why the effort matters, how it impacts readers, and how it might help the industry.

Rodrigue: What first interested you in the “right to be forgotten”?

Quinn: It was the cumulative impact of letters from people saying that our stories were wrecking their lives. People who felt like they had atoned for their mistakes, but because of our online archives were being haunted by them. Around [that] time ... the European Union created a legislated Right to be Forgotten.

Rodrigue: There seem to be two philosophies among editors. One is that we exist to record and preserve the past and should not selectively remove information. The other is that we should be willing to remove information that causes needless harm to people in our communities. Why did you come down on the side of potential removal?

Quinn: We are not the official record of the communities we cover. We never were. A great deal of randomness affects what we cover on any given day. From 2009 to 2013, for instance, we published something very much like a Cleveland police blotter. If you were arrested in those years for quite minor crimes, chances are you are in our archive. But people arrested for the same crimes before or after that are not.

Is that fair? On a big news day, like a corruption indictment, we throw every resource we have at covering that story, so something that made news a day earlier would not be covered that day. The official record of a community is in the court dockets and minutes of government meetings, not news archives.

It came down to a simple question: Was the value to the community of preserving stories about minor mistakes from years earlier greater than the value of removal to the story subjects? For me, almost always, the value is greater to the person seeking removal. The story is causing them pain. And let’s face it, those stories were news on the day they happened. They are not news today.

Rodrigue: Did any of their life stories make an especially deep impression, in terms of showing the harm caused by older news stories?

Quinn: Many of them did. A former drug addict who got clean and now works to help others fight addiction was horrified that the first thing appearing in Google searches for her name was her mug shot after she had crashed her car while inebriated. It was the worst picture she’ll ever take, and there it was, for all to see. She didn’t even care about the story, just the humiliating mug shot.

Another was a kid who had just graduated with a master’s degree and had a professional license. A search of his name turned up something stupid he had done the summer he graduated from high school. Why should a dopey mistake you make when you were 18 dog you in your mid-20s?

Rodrigue: What factors do you weigh in deciding whether to remove mention of a person’s name?

Quinn: First, we don’t grant requests involving violence, sex crimes, or corruption. But after that, it’s that simple question: Is there more value to the community in preserving the story than there is to helping someone out by removing it?

Removing damaging information about a person from public records can change the trajectory of their future.
Removing damaging information about a person from public records can change the trajectory of their future.

Rodrigue: Does the growing national awareness of potential racial bias in policing figure in your willingness to review these cases?

Quinn: That’s the new wrinkle. Because many of the stories we deal with involve crime, we worry about how police bias might have figured into the stories we wrote. Police are sources of crime stories. If they had a bias in how they did their jobs, that naturally would bleed into what we wrote. One reason we want to be much more methodical in removing stories is to erase any such bias.

Rodrigue: What share of requests have you granted so far?

Quinn: I’d estimate we’re at about 80%.

Rodrigue: How will the system is creating benefit its newsroom and its community?

Quinn: It will allow us to address more stories more rapidly. And it will help us help people who might not know we are doing this, because it will surface stories even if no one has complained about them. We’ve publicised it a good bit, but we don’t reach everyone. This system will provide the service without regard to whether people are in our audience.

Rodrigue:  What will you be sharing with the rest of the news industry as a result of this project, and when do you anticipate sharing it?

Quinn: We hope our software tool will help any newsroom bubble up and evaluate stories and mug shots they might want to remove from their archives. We’ll spend a year improving it, and then it should be ready for adaptation elsewhere.

About George Rodrigue

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