America’s Largest News Agency Changes Crime Reporting Practices To “Do Less Harm And Give People A Second Chance”

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Maggie Jones Patterson, Duquesne University and Romayne Smith Fullerton, Western University

(THE CONVERSATION) When the names of suspects appear in crime stories, their lives may be shattered and never restored.

For years, people have pleaded with the Associated Press, known as the “AP,” to clean their indiscretions from its records. Some of those requests “were heartbreaking,” said John Daniszewski, vice president of standards at AP, who helped lead the new policy for the global news service.


Recognizing that journalism can inflict unnecessary harm, AP will no longer name those arrested for petty crimes when the news service is unlikely to cover later developments in the story. Often times, the publication of such stories is based on some weird or entertaining quirk, and the names are irrelevant. Yet the ramifications can be significant and lasting for those appointees.

The amount of detail American journalists include in a crime story depends on its importance, our research shows. A minor story can be based solely on a police incident report. A great story, of the kind discussed around the water fountain, can include interviews with knowledge and in-depth research into the person’s past. Whether the story is big or small, most accounts include the full identification of the accused in the American press.

“I received a very moving letter from a man who, as a student, had been involved in a financial crime,” Daniszewski recalled in an interview with us, both academics in media ethics. When an old account of the incident surfaced, the young man lost friends. Even his future marriage was in jeopardy until he could persuade his fiancee and family that he had learned from his experience and that he was not an incorrigible villain.

For others, stories of their alleged crimes have surfaced in Google searches 10 or 15 years after the incident, even though they have never been convicted or the courts have cleared the criminal record. Daniszewski said many people applying to the PA had been arrested for minor drug offenses, such as small amounts of marijuana, but stories about the offenses prevented them from finding jobs, renting cars. apartments and even meet people on dating apps.

Culture change

The Associated Press, America’s largest news agency, was founded in 1846. It is a cooperative enterprise whose members include most of the major news organizations in the United States and many other countries.

The new PA policy signals a change in American politics and culture. It deviates a little from the traditional practice of “telling it all” of reporting on American crime. He somewhat embraces the empathy towards evildoers shown by journalists in some European countries.

We interviewed nearly 200 journalists and media experts in 10 countries in Western Europe and North America for our book, “Murder in Our Midst: Comparing Crime Coverage Ethics in an Age of Globalized News”. We found significant differences in journalistic practices, despite the similarities between democratic institutions and the values ​​of these countries.

The codes of ethics of the German, Dutch and Swedish press councils encourage the protection of the identity of suspects and convicted persons. These codes are largely voluntary and allow each outlet to make decisions on a case-by-case basis, but their default practice is not to identify themselves.

In these countries, journalists withhold the full names of those arrested or even convicted of crimes, except in certain cases of public figures or crimes of special public interest. Instead, news accounts only have initials or a first name and an initial to protect that person from publicity.

Since 1973, German courts have demanded that reports refrain from identifying detainees as they approach their release from prison to allow for their “re-socialization” and their “right to personality” or reputation.

Irreparable damage

When we asked an editor-in-chief of the ANP, the Dutch counterpart of the PA, why her staff regularly concealed names, she paused and then said, “What if he has children? They didn’t do anything wrong ”, but they would be irreparably hurt if they were labeled as the offspring of a criminal.

While journalists from Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden expressed a similar concern for the families, they also said they wanted to preserve the presumption of innocence for those simply accused and the possibility of resuming productive lives for those who were condemned.

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

Most of the American journalists we interviewed regretted the damage caused by such revelations, but saw the practice as collateral damage. In their eyes, their first obligation is to act as a watchdog with the police and the government. They believe that the public has the right to public information and that the police should never have the power to make undisclosed arrests. This commitment runs much deeper in the United States than in the Netherlands. For the most part, “we trust our government,” said an official from the Dutch Journalists Union.

Watchdog ethics are an important part of the PA, Daniszewski told us. However, as the research for our book revealed, the ethics and practices of journalism are rooted in culture. And the American “zeitgeist” around criminal justice is changing, said Daniszewski.

In 2018, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer began reviewing petitions to remove certain stories from its records. The Boston Globe’s Fresh Start initiative took a similar step this year. These are small steps compared to the European Union’s guarantee that citizens have a “right to be forgotten” by having at least a few humiliating stories removed from search engine archives.

Public figures

Journalists from the 10 countries we studied agreed that the public needs to know when politicians are charged with crimes related to their official duties.

When a politician or celebrity is suspected of having committed a major crime, such as a hit and run, the press should name names, most of the journalists in our sample agree. The press must also blame, the reporters said, when political crimes affect public welfare.

However, Dutch journalists and others often turn a blind eye when celebrities or politicians are accused of domestic violence or sexual harassment, which they see as private indiscretions. American journalists are more likely to consider such accusations.

Individuals who commit crimes, even major crimes, are rarely identified in mainstream newspapers in the Netherlands, Sweden or Germany, although these names are known to the public and could be revealed by tabloids and websites. . One reason: “We believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” said Thomas Bruning, head of the Dutch Journalists’ Union.

Is a similar feeling taking hold in the United States?

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The United States incarcerates criminals in places we call “penitentiaries,” Daniszewski said – that is, places of repentance. The term might imply that forgiveness might follow, but in fact criminals are stigmatized for life, he said.

The PA will never water down reports of serious crimes or whitewash public corruption, he vowed. But speaking of the PA’s new policy, he said: “We thought if we could do less harm and give people a second chance, it would be for good.”

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/the-largest-news-agency-in-the-us-changes-crime-reporting-practices-to-do-less-harm-and-give-people – second-chances-165158.


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