Naming criminal suspects
This section addresses these ethical issues:
- Should criminal suspects be named to begin with?
- What about juveniles?
- Suppose someone is named as a suspect by people other than the police?
The journalism of today is permanent, searchable and accessible. If a person has been accused of a crime, charged, tried or convicted, there are often searchable records of that occurrence. Individuals are named as suspects by the police or others, some are tried and acquitted, charges dropped or they were convicted possibly years ago. Should all of them be named in the first place?
Here are a few examples that have come up at the Globe and Mail:
- The family of a former police officer wanted a story of his conviction for breaking and entering deleted from the database because he is having trouble getting a job.
- A story of a deadly fire at a nursing home named an elderly man (who died in the fire) whom a night watchman believed was the source of the blaze.
- A man charged with bomb making has all charges withdrawn. The story is updated, but he wants it removed.
- A woman found out her boyfriend she met online was a married man, and she outed him. He sued and now wants his name removed.
The solutions here vary, depending on the story. A separate module in this project addresses issues relating to requests to remove material from your archives. This article focuses on consideration of whether and when to name suspects. In the case of a charge that is later withdrawn, the person is acquitted or an accusation is proven untrue, the original story is updated and often, but not always, a follow-up story is written. Your organization should consider whether you need a system to ensure that you follow up on all criminal allegations that you report.
But should the names have been mentioned in the first place? Does a name (as opposed to the details) add anything to the telling of the story? Absolutely yes, in the case of a formal charge by the police or a trial. That is part of the public record and central to holding both the system and its participants accountable in a democracy.
You need to be much more careful before that person is charged by police and consider on what basis is someone is considered a suspect. Is he or she a person of interest or a true suspect?
What about an accusation by someone other than the police? Greater care is needed here, as well. If the person is a fugitive and considered dangerous, police may release a name, photograph or sketch, and that’s immediately newsworthy. But it doesn’t mean the person will eventually be charged and convicted.
Or what about a minor crime for a young person, such as marijuana possession? There’s an argument, too, that the name of a person charged with possessing child pornography — a crime likely to bring extraordinary public reaction — should be withheld until there’s a finding of guilty. (This is not a widely held argument, but we state it here for completeness.)
Laws differ across countries when it comes to naming juvenile suspects. An Editor & Publisher article raises the idea of minimizing harm with juveniles. But as the article suggests, judgement is required here. Is it a minor offense, such as smashing a window during a university homecoming? Or is it murder? How close to an adult is the accused? (See also the “Children: Coverage, Images and Interviews” module on this site).
There are arguments that you should not name people charged (not just accused) unless you are going to cover the outcome of the trial. Is it fair to make it difficult for people to get work and to tarnish their name if they are either not charged or are acquitted? On the other hand, if the court and police system are not completely public, including names, how is the public supposed to monitor and trust the system?
Naming those who turn out to be falsely accused has serious consequences. Consider Ryan Lanza, the brother of the Newtown shooter who was initially and wrongly named. Or Richard Jewell, initially named — wrongly — as the Atlanta Olympic bomber, who asked “Where do I get my reputation back?” ? How do you undo this damage?
The main author of this section is Sylvia Stead of the Toronto Globe and Mail.