It happens a few times a year. An upset individual calls concerning something unflattering of themselves they or someone else has come across on the internet via a Google search.
The item, originating on The Pilot’s website, is usually a minor arrest that had been included in a weekly roundup of the “Police Blotter” feature. The arrest might be for shoplifting, a misdemeanor drug offense or some other low-level crime.
On the internet, these items live on in perpetuity long after the offense has been dispatched by the courts, if it even made it that far. More often than not, charges are dropped or plea-bargained down to lesser affairs. And yet, that original arrest squats on Google like a bad middle-school picture of you with braces and a cowlick.
The Pilot, like most newspapers, has regularly printed matters of public record over the years. That includes police blotter material, business licenses, births, civil cases and the outcome of criminal court sessions. For years, we had a former court stenographer, Brenda, who would collect and process this information and produce it for us.
But Brenda eventually moved on, and as papers have contracted and space has shrunk over the years, this public data is no longer published. All that we still printed were birth notices and police blotter — until recently, when we decided we will no longer print the police blotter.
We don’t make this decision lightly; the regular Wednesday police blotter is a popular feature. But there are several good reasons to discontinue printing:
n The blotter was never a complete picture. There are 11 municipalities in Moore County, but the blotter only regularly carried arrests and incidents from the Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines police departments, in addition to the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. We simply can’t get to all the agencies, and each has a different records policy that precludes a nice neat electronic solution.
n The blotter could be misleading. While we have our share of crime, there’s no denying Moore County is a safe place to live. The blotter would sometimes make towns like Southern Pines look like Chicago if it had an unusual number of arrests or incidents. Likewise, other towns would sometimes not include all arrests, making themselves look better than they really are.
n These records are now more readily available to the public. Southern Pines even has a website now where you can access its public records. Other departments are moving that way to be more transparent. Previously, these records were all paper and kept away from easy public view.
n Records that once were printed in a newspaper — and then disappeared into an archive — now live on for years online, affecting everything from employment to child adoption.
When I have gotten calls previously from someone about a police blotter item, it’s usually because that person is applying for a job. Most of the time, the person says the charges were dropped or they were found not guilty, but employers don’t offer a chance to explain.
When that happens, we offer to take the item off our website if they have an official document showing the outcome.
Arrests for significant thefts, drug offenses or violent crimes are typically turned into stories. The police blotter, on the other hand, is comprised almost entirely of “garden variety” crimes. Including the arrests — but not following through with the ultimate outcome — is only telling half a story, and that’s not fair to anyone.
This is not an issue that just The Pilot is weighing. Newspapers across the country lately have been reflecting on their process for publishing public records and the impact on the people in them. According to an article on the Neiman Lab journalism website, the editors in Cleveland, Ohio, are dealing with this issue now. Chris Quinn, the editor and president of Cleveland.com/Advance Ohio, told Neiman, says his organization is now reserving most of its coverage for serious offenders and dropping the “everyday” arrests.
Or, as he said, “It really comes down to: How long does somebody have to pay for a mistake?”