In the interest of transparency, I’d like to talk about arrest reports.
The upshot is this: If you’re arrested in Riley County, we’re going to put your name in the paper, along with what you were arrested for. We have done that for decades, and we’re not planning to change that approach. We believe arrests by the local police to be newsworthy, in and of themselves. Same goes for citations for alcohol- or drug-related offenses, on largely the same grounds.
But something has changed in the digital age that makes this worth revisiting in a slightly different light. Hang on a minute, and we’ll get there.
First, the background. Arrest reports are public record under state law, just as they are in every other state, for very good reasons. The public has an interest in knowing what crimes are being committed in their communities, or at the very least what the police – who have a monopoly on the legal use of violence – are doing in their name.
We at The Mercury used to get a fairly predictable stream of people trying to persuade us not to publish the news of their arrest, usually trying to claim that the cops got it wrong, or – in some cases – because they were our friends. Those are awkward and difficult conversations, but they were relatively simple to handle, since the answer was always no.
Clearly, the police make mistakes. They occasionally arrest the wrong people, or they arrest people who at least can’t be convicted in court. But that doesn’t change anything; on balance it’s still in the public interest, in my opinion, to publish the arrests.
So now, in the digital era, something has changed. Far less often do we hear requests to withhold publication. The issue nowadays is the existence, forever more, of a digital record of that arrest. Because of high traffic volume on TheMercury.com and the weight that Google gives our content — because it is highly reliable, edited, professional journalism — our content shows up high in search. That sounds like a shameless self-promotion, and it is, but it’s also true.
What that means is that if a potential employer Googles you, and you were arrested here in 2014 because you drove drunk back to the SAE house from Aggieville one night when you were sophomore, that’s going to turn up. That means far more than the initial publication. What if you went to court and got the case dismissed through a diversion agreement, or you fought it and were found not guilty?
Well, that’s where this gets even more interesting. We have not — and still do not — routinely publish the outcome of all criminal court cases here. That is because doing so has been logistically impossible for us to do. And anyway, doing that wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem of the everlasting arrest report, anyway. So what we have told people is that we will edit into the original report a note that the case was subsequently dismissed, or that there was a not-guilty verdict, if the person can provide us the necessary court documents. That way, when the potential employer Googles you, that’s what they’ll find.
That’s often not a satisfactory answer, since typically people want us to erase the original report.
Thing is, the arrest still happened, and we’re not into un-publishing news.