Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post
Over the years, we’ve all done something we’re not proud of. For those caught breaking the law, our legal system ensures that actions have consequences. The goal is to teach people a lesson, to get them to follow the law next time. As a broke college student, it only took me a few speeding tickets to realize: I can’t afford speeding tickets.
But long after the fines are paid and sentences are served, these crimes live on in communities across the U.S. The combination of articles on low-level crimes existing forever on local newspaper websites, search engines bringing years-old articles to the front page of the internet, and ordinary Joes not having a more flattering web presence to overtake them creates an environment where minor crimes can become the number-one search result for your name years later. Our police blotter was never intended to work this way.
I’m grateful that, long before my time, the Winona Post made the classy decision that crime stories — excepting only the highest-profile cases — don’t run on our front page. We don’t print mugshots. There are more important things happening in our community. The Post’s philosophy is the opposite of the “if it bleeds it leads” mantra at some news outlets, which seem to treat crime reporting like an opportunity for salacious entertainment — a print version of the TV show “Cops.” The shame this heaps on low-level offenders can be worse than their actual sentences.
That said, our crime reporting does have a purpose to serve. We believe in the public’s right to know what’s happening in their neighborhood and who police arrested and why. I spent my first few years as a reporter trudging down to the police station every morning to get this information, and it forms the foundation of our newspaper’s ability to report on major events — such as murders or police use of force — when they happen. Even with mundane cases, we should all care about how public safety and civil rights are protected in our community, and these daily 9-1-1 calls are where the rubber hits the road. Over the years, we’ve done in-depth reporting on issues like pedestrian accidents and domestic violence, but it was daily police blotters that helped fuel those bigger picture stories. Crime affects policy decisions, too. A rash of burglaries in the 2010s, for instance, spurred the Winona City Council to hire another police officer. Having an accurate public record of alleged crimes and police response is fundamental to informed conversations about public safety policy. Crime reporting can also help people make safer choices in their own lives, and it can help dispel false rumors.
Whether low-level crime articles should exist on the internet forever is another matter. A few U.S. newspapers — most prominently the Boston Globe, Bangor Daily News, and Cleveland Plain Dealer — have set policies to take articles about years-old, minor crimes off their websites. After getting feedback from various citizens and organizations, the Post is joining the club.
Starting today, individuals may request to have articles about their arrests, citations, and criminal charges removed from our website if: 1. It’s been at least five years since the offense; 2. the offense was not a felony; 3. the offense didn’t involve violence, sexual harassment, or sexual misconduct; and 4. the subject is not a government official or public figure. Whether an article will be removed, even if the individual making the request satisfies all four conditions, is solely at the discretion of the Winona Post.
Under this policy, articles about murders, police shootings, crimes by people in positions of public trust, and other violent or felony-level crimes will remain online. If someone had a misdemeanor DWI five years ago, their arrest would no longer appear on WinonaPost.com.
A few people have criticized such policies as erasing history a la “1984.” That’s compelling rhetoric, but it’s just not the case here. Even after they are removed from our website, public records of these crimes will still exist in court systems (check out mncourts.gov), at law enforcement departments, and in the Winona Post archives, both in our own system and at the Winona County History Center. Employers can still conduct background checks on potential hires. This public information will still be accessible to the public, just not necessarily the top hit on Google. For years-old minor crimes, that’s how it should be.
To make an unpublishing request, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to Winona Post, c/o Winona Post Editor, P.O. Box 27, Winona, MN, 55987. Include “unpublishing request” in the subject line, and include your full name, contact information, and the date or URL of the article or police blotter entry you are requesting to be removed.