Worries About a Journalistic "Right to Be Forgotten"

Well, this is not a piece of news I expected to read today.

Starting today, The Salt Lake Tribune will consider requests from people who want their names or images removed from past coverage.

Some context: the Salt Lake Tribune is one of two major newspapers operating in Salt Lake City, Utah. It has traditionally been positioned as the competitor with the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon Church. As the Salt Lake City area has gotten less demographically Mormon, the relevance of a newspaper that is openly (some say excessively) critical of the Church has dwindled, so the paper rolled hard left and died, or very nearly--it is now a weekly rather than daily publication, and (like many similar publications) now depends a great deal on charity to survive.

I was not aware that the Tribune was following in anyone's footsteps, but:

Recently, The Boston Globe announced its “Fresh Start” initiative, and Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer has had its “Right to be forgotten” policy in place since 2018.

I'm intrigued. The "right to be forgotten" is an interesting one. I'm not sure there is such a right, just in this sense: a right is an interest sufficiently important that it imposes an obligation on others to act or refrain from acting in certain ways. Certainly some people have an interest in having certain things forgotten, but in order for it to amount to a right, it must be weightier than anyone else's interest in having something remembered. So for example if you are falsely accused of a crime, it seems that your interest in having that accusation "forgotten" is fairly weighty, and no one will have any weighty interest in having that accusation remembered (for who could have a legitimate interest in remembering false accusations?).

But that's not quite what the Tribune is going for, here:

We recognize the lasting impact The Tribune’s reporting can have, especially for those accused of minor, nonviolent crimes. . . . Across the country, other newsrooms are crafting or have already implemented similar approaches as they too reckon with the potential long-term consequences of reporting, especially for people of color.

Of course, every request will be considered on a case-by-case basis:

We do not have a precise formula for amending a story. We will respectfully consider each request.

Just as people deserve a fresh start, we too must evaluate and redefine our role and the impact we have in communities we serve.

I'll be honest: I want to applaud this. I find the phenomenon of "little offense archaeologists" to be exceedingly distasteful and destructive to the fabric of society. The idea that regular people are out there compiling "receipts" of things that upset them, little personal blacklists and "oppo" files, seems corrosive at best.

But of course I can guess, because I am sufficiently cynical, that in practice this is a new form of tribal spoils. Those who control the media will now be further-immunized from the consequences of their own actions. Under the guise of "letting people have a fresh start," negative coverage of past co-partyists will cease to exist, but requests from the wrong sort of person will be met with shrugs of "we promise to look into that... soon."

I don't mean to borrow a jack about this. Maybe it will turn out okay? But as an empirical matter, I wonder just how much "damage" the Tribune was really doing in the first place. I'm sure there are people who have been denied jobs etc. based on a news story about their past crimes, so maybe I've just read too much Orwell, but it seems to me that if the news media is going to give people the ability to have themselves "forgotten," it would actually be better for this power to not be specifically limited to accusations of minor, nonviolent crimes. Having a "memory-hole czar" feels way worse to me, actually, than the possibility of having certain things forgotten (even though I am definitely uncomfortable about having certain things forgotten). The project as described feels like too frank an admission that the Tribune is inviting certain members of the community to participate in manipulating public perception. And the specific offer of removing pictures but not (usually) stories feels like a naked stab at obfuscating certain uncomfortable facts about crime demographics.