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Matt Von Pinnon, Published July 11 2010

Von Pinnon: Search engine results don’t always tell a complete story

Every once in a while, a person whose run-ins with the law have been written about in The Forum calls or writes us to ask that we remove their name from our newspaper and online archives.

Sometimes, they make compelling arguments: The original complaint against them was eventually dropped or their charges were amended to something less severe. Perhaps they were found not guilty, or someone else later admitted to the crime, clearing them.

But we don’t go back and remove old stories from our archives under any circumstance. They reflect a moment in time.

We do try our best to follow up on all criminal matters we write about and, if those accused of crimes are eventually cleared, we want to clear their name, too. In fact, we take pains to clear their names in the same manner as the original story detailing the accusations against them. If information is incorrect, we correct it on the printed paper’s Page A2, where all corrections run, or in the online story itself.

But, even if someone is eventually cleared of a crime or other wrongdoing, the original story or stories about the case still exist in our archives and in today’s much larger online world.

And it’s mostly the online part of that equation that’s giving people fits.

While Google and other search engines are great for people who want to find information about anything and everything, they are nightmarish for people who want to escape unflattering news of their past.

It only takes a future employer or love interest five minutes to background somebody, or at least to think they’ve backgrounded somebody.

See, search engines often don’t provide a complete or linear picture of a person’s history. They are snippets of information, gathered and organized in various ways depending on the service. Their search capabilities are often only as good as the person doing the searching.

Last week, this dilemma reared its head in a Pennsylvania court, where a lawyer sought to have the official criminal records of 41 clients expunged.

As part of his request, he asked two judges to force newspapers that reported on his clients to remove stories done about them from their print and online archives, arguing:

“What’s the sense in having your record expunged if anyone can Google you and it comes up?”

One judge temporarily agreed with the lawyer for the 41 clients and ordered the newspapers to remove the archived stories, then later reversed his order, saying it was a mistake on First Amendment grounds.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said it best when she explained that expunging a person’s criminal record only provides the accused a clean formal background check.

“You don’t get to change history,” she said.

It’s likely this issue will only grow hotter as information proliferates online and yet becomes less and less accurate and reliable.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579 or mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com