Ocean City Today and Bayside Gazette ended the practice of posting police beat items on their web pages last week, after recognizing that, unlike print articles, online information can live forever, even when it is incomplete and unfair.
This decision was prompted by an increasing number of requests from people who wanted their names removed from the online reports for three obviously valid reasons: The charges were dropped; their records were expunged by court order; they were found innocent, but the papers had not reported that outcome.
Meanwhile, the charges against these individuals remained available to anyone conducting a background check, whether it was for employment purposes or a host of other legitimate reasons.
When asked to correct or remove the record, the news staff verified the claims of the parties and undertook the arduous business of erasing their names and related information from every Internet location over which they had control.
We concluded this was the right thing to do, based on the almost universal principle of presumption of innocence in criminal court proceedings.
We also realized, however, that we failed the fairness test because of our own limitations. Newspapers of this size don’t have the resources to follow each police beat case through the court system and report on its conclusion. Neither do they have the staff to return to that original online police item and rewrite it to reflect the proper legal outcome.
Ultimately, we sought advice from the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, which agreed that we should post only police stories of such significance that we do pursue the case to its conclusion.
The weekly police beat has been one of our most highly read online articles. Nevertheless, our own interests are nowhere as important as the principles of fairness and the presumption of innocence.