It’s something newsrooms have struggled with: Someone calls in and asks for an article to be removed or edited because an action in their past is causing problems in their present.
For the Philadelphia Inquirer, the response is a new “Up for Review” policy, in which those concerns can be filed, investigated and action can be taken.
“Broadly speaking, the policy is meant to offer a fresh look at stories that may have caused unintended and lasting harm,” says Evan Benn, senior director of special projects and communications at the Inquirer. “As we know, stories can live forever on the internet and some can affect people’s ability to get jobs and housing and more. We regularly receive requests from subjects of articles asking for stories to be removed or edited because they continue to cause them harm. This policy was created to address those requests in a consistent and equitable manner.”
While the effort was just launched publicly in February, it’s been three years in the making, Benn says. The conversation started on a larger scale after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, when the paper ran a “racist headline” that prompted the publication to take a closer look at how it operated and the adoption of initiatives to become a more anti-racist newspaper.
There’s a governing policy for how requests for this review process operates, says Emily Babay, coverage editor for the Inquirer’s Now Team.
“The policy in large part was developed with low-level criminal cases as what would encompass a large majority of the cases (the paper would review), where charges were downgraded or dropped entirely and we never did a follow up,” she says, adding that there are some articles that will not be reviewed, including those involving current or former politicians or any article on a current news story.
If a request is submitted and the review team, run by Babay and a group of four others, determines that there’s a solid reason to honor it, the recourse is simple.
“I think all journalists are hesitant to change our work or erase our history,” Benn says. “We made it clear this is not the remedy Up for Review is taking .We’re not unpublishing stories. The main recourse is to de-index. That makes it invisible for search engines like Google to find on our website. It’s harder for someone’s name to pop up on a Google search, but it’s still there.”
The paper has made other changes as well in light of this initiative, which also included a Temple University-led audit of more than 3,000 recent articles published by the Inquirer three years ago.
“Up for Review was developed as a recognition that our policies have changed,” . Now we don’t use mug shots with hardly any crime stories. Our stance for what we write crime briefs on have changed. This is a way to address stories that we wrote in a different era with different policies on what we deemed newsworthy,” Babay says. “Up for Review is an acknowledgment of those changing policies. It goes the other way in that we are looking at what we’re getting requests about and that can influence our reporting. Many of us are considering when we name a minor in a story. So many requests for Up For Review are coming in from people who were named in stories as a kid. They did not give consent. Now we’re looking at whether it’s truly necessary to include the kid’s name. I recently edited a story about a vandalism incident. We decided to write about the incident but not name the suspect out of thinking that if this person writes to us in five years, it feels like a request we’d be likely to grant.”
Evan Benn, senior director of special projects and communications at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Emily Babay, coverage editor on the Inquirer’s Now Team, discuss the “Up for Review,” policy in which the paper reexamines stories that caused significant harm when they were first reported.