A Progressive Press Weighs Who Not to Name

crime scene do not cross signage

In the throes of its own existential revenue crisis, the nation’s press is wrestling with the social justice of a local newspaper mainstay: crime coverage.  On top of heightened sensitivity over appearances in many parts of America—too many of those suspected or arrested after street offenses are of color—there is guilt that names of the “perps,” once reported, are lodged forever in digital archives, whatever their ultimate adjudication. For the young, that notoriety can amount to a type of life sentence of lost job and other opportunities.

So in various locales, today’s journalists are resolving to self-correct for the unfairness of criminal justice by avoiding or expunging elements of what used to be stock in trade.  Mug shots are now rarer except in cases as heinous as multiple shootings. (Some police departments no longer release them.) Crime scenes themselves—once the feeding ground for photographers such as the New York favorite known as Weegee—have been greatly sanitized. You are more likely to see grieving or angry relatives than a gruesome victim or subdued assailant.

The new sensibilities reflect a wish to wash progressive hands of a “carceral system” that is discriminatory and unjust. If arrests skew toward people of color (and the published images have not been a distortion of reality) then there is a damning social history that led to that outcome, not to mention dubious police practices in catching and questioning the suspects. Minor offenses are given too heavy a weight. The bail and probation systems add to the outrage.

New urban digital media, particularly those catering to Millennials and Gen Z, have led the charge in eschewing what they view as tabloid pandering.  There, you won’t find much focus on crime, except where it involves abusive policing or, interestingly, motorists colliding with bicyclists.

Problem is, the most avid readers of local news—homeowners, parents of school children, the elderly—really want to know about street and other crime. There’s a reason it has long been grist for the printing press.  Out of fear or bias, mixed with some desire for shaming, the appetite for crime news hasn’t shown any abeyance, best I can tell. (Academics may demure but surveys still show interest, even abroad.)   Papers in days of old even included home addresses of alleged culprits, ostensibly to avoid mistaken identities (ages are still usually mentioned) but perhaps to alert neighbors as well. Such information obviously invites targeted opprobrium.

Whatever motivates consumers of this information, the hunger will find alternative channels in the online age. One need only look at the comments sections of hyperlocal sites such as Patch and Nextdoor to see that neighborliness includes, as it always has, a degree of suspicious chatter.

For nearly a decade, Europeans have had a legal right to “be forgotten” online, by requesting digital pages containing sensitive information about them to be removed. For now, in the U.S., such accommodation is voluntary on the part of platforms and publishers.

What should conscientious journalists, who also want to avoid any notion of censorship and to keep their paying audience, do to remedy unintended harm?  Extend to a new class of protected parties the shield that they have accorded many victims (sex crimes) and most minors?

One frequent beef is that a spot news item about an arrest is then left, orphaned of any follow-up, in the online archive. The accused might later have been cleared or otherwise had charges dropped or reduced. It is true that local media, having picked up a police blotter item (which itself may be a mischaracterization), often do not publish updates on the case unless it is a murder or celebrity scandal. It’s simply beyond their staffing resources to do so. Cases might remain under investigative wraps for weeks, and then the court process could drag on for months. (Many years ago, as a cop-shop reporter, I wrote what is now called a “long-form narrative” that tracked a typical mid-level felony through a good year leading to a conviction. I needed special dispensation to manage that.)

To avoid the prospect of latent harm, to the innocent or guilty alike, local publications increasingly are limiting their crime briefs to details of an incident without personal identities. That at least alerts readers to the commission of a nearby crime, and whether a suspect was apprehended.   Selective follow-ups can look for patterns of malevolence or false arrest, if indeed the thinly-staffed press is up for that. (The publication of arrestees’ names—which is generally not done in systems like the UK’s—was at least partly seen under U.S. law as a protection of the accused from secret jailings.)

Sometimes the efforts to wean journalism from racist tropes can appear silly. The blotter items on at-large suspects that (days later) describe their clothing but not their skin shade do not serve much “APB” purpose. By contrast, now-common surveillance cameras provide video images that can be allowed to speak for themselves on a news platform. These are, of course, usually coming through police departments, so there is still going to be debate about who is getting fingered.

For keepers of the public record who have long resisted attempts to expunge embarrassing material, especially when they come from political or commercial interests, the decisions to withhold will be difficult—all the more so when they come after the fact. Even in real time, such as with a serial or mass killing spree when police and others clamor not to dignify the evildoer with publicity by name, the journalistic instinct is to “run it.”  If we are at a pivot point for media practices, for reasons of changed technology or ideology, the business had best recognize and reflect on it.

UPDATE 7/14/21: In Europe, the “forgotten” prerogative has just been widened by the Court of Human Rights: https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/european-courts-right-to-be-forgotten-ruling-uk-news-publishers/

Published by timwferguson

Longtime writer-editor, focusing on topics of business and policy, global and local.

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