Tell-all crime reporting is a peculiarly American practice. Now U.S. news outlets are rethinking it

Journalists should balance the public’s “right to know” with the public’s “need to know,” mindful of the potential harm caused to people named in stories — including people who have been charged with a crime.

In America, we are all presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but American culture often focuses on the punitive aspect of the justice system, while in some other countries, citizens perceive the system as less focused on punishment and more focused on rehabilitation.

Already in America, journalists are trained to keep the names of sexual assault victims out of their stories. If authorities publish the name and face of a kidnapped child and ask the media and the public for help getting the child back, it’s a good news story when the child was recovered, but because everyone now knows the name and face of the child, what does a reporter do with the information that the suspect was not only charged with kidnapping, but also sexual assault of a minor? (Leaving some details out of your news story won’t make the guilty party less likely to be convicted.)

When the crime is not that serious, and the reporter is simply reporting the story because of some quirky detail (trespasser trapped in chimney; drunk-driving a lawnmower into a neighbor’s swimming pool, etc.), if there’s no threat the the public and the person facing charges is not a public figure whose involvement with the law would be somehow newsworthy (a politician with a “though on crime” platform who is charged in a hit-and-run), then publishing the name of the accused is extraneous.

This article does a good job explaining how the American tendency to publish and shame suspects is not universal.

Acknowledging that journalism can inflict wounds unnecessarily, AP will no longer name those arrested for minor crimes when the news service is unlikely to cover the story’s subsequent developments.

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When the Dutch editor learned how many deeply personal details American reporters routinely publish about those arrested, she gasped at what she saw as cruel and unethical. “Why would you do that to someone?” she asked.

Most American reporters we interviewed regretted the harm such revelations caused but saw the practice as collateral damage. In their eyes, their first obligation is acting as a watchdog on police and government. They believe the public has the right to public information, and police should never be trusted with the power to make undisclosed arrests. That commitment runs much deeper in the U.S. than it does in the Netherlands. For the most part, “we trust our government,” said one official of the Dutch union of journalists.

Watchdog ethics loom large at the AP, Daniszewski told us. However — as we found in research for our book — journalism ethics and practices are rooted in culture. And the American zeitgeist around the criminal justice is shifting, Daniszewski said.

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The U.S. incarcerates felons in places we call “penitentiaries,” Daniszewski said — that is, places for repentance. The term might imply forgiveness could follow, but in fact felons are stigmatized for life, he said.

The AP will never sugarcoat accounts of serious crime nor whitewash public corruption, he vowed. But speaking of the AP’s new policy, he said, “We thought if we could do less harm and give people second chances, it would be for the good.” — Nieman Lab