Editors question how much police blotter information to publicize
Local crimes and arrests listed on the police blotter are a matter of public record, public interest and sometimes public entertainment. But blotter entries may be printed without an evaluation by the same discerning eye afforded to other news content. And while the decision to print police blotter information may be fleeting, it can have enduring consequences for the subject.
“There have been challenges on privacy grounds, but when the matter is of public record, any privacy claims have been defeated,” said Dick Goehler, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd LLC in Cincinnati, Ohio. “People will rattle their sabers about that from time to time, but there really is not a privacy problem. There is no invasion of privacy if you publish information that’s contained on the public record.”
Papers might, for their own editorial reasons, decide not to print the information, Goehler said, but if so it should be for ethical and not legal reasons.
The information provided by police must be evaluated on the same merits of newsworthiness as any other story, and it must serve a purpose, said Kelly McBride, an instructor for the Poynter Institute.
“With any police blotter, whether it’s a regular newspaper or a college newspaper, you have to ask what the purpose of the information is, what the purpose of publishing it is,” McBride said. “And for the most part, you want to publish blotter information to give people a sense of the types of crime that are happening.”
Some papers fulfill this purpose by printing pertinent crime information to inform the community, but for various reasons choose to redact the names, addresses and identifying information of those involved.
“A lot of times you don’t put names in it because, initially, a lot of the information is likely to be wrong,” McBride said. “Charges change, suspect descriptions change, the facts change. There is something about the nature of initial reports that they’re not as reliable as something that has been investigated, and police blotter stuff hasn’t been investigated.“Different student publications make different decisions, create different policies and see different consequences regarding the use of this information.
At the University of South Carolina, Director of Student Media Scott Lindenberg acknowledged the difficult decision between feeling a responsibility toward the community, and being concerned with creating an easily accessible permanent record of sometimes fleeting issues.
“If somebody was convicted of a crime at 19 years old, the ethical dilemma is: Should that follow them for the rest of their careers or their lives?” Lindenberg said.When deciding the news value of a story, Lindenberg said in many instances if the blotter information is important enough to be printed, it should be covered in a story, not just a news brief. This can also help prevent another common issue with printing blotter information: lack of follow-up.
S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for Security on Campus Inc., a non-profit campus safety advocacy group, said following up on police blotter information is the responsibility of all journalists.
“Campus media have just as much responsibility to follow up on the outcome of a case as they do to report on a case when it’s fresh,” Carter said.
Publishing blotter information but not following the case through to completion can lead to more requests for newspapers to remove information from their Web sites. “Technology is opening up a whole new can of worms that we need to deal with,” Lindenberg said.
This technology puts added weight on the decision of whether to run identifying information in the police blotter, he added.
“We owe this to our readership and it’s one of the most read parts of our paper, but do we really want to affect a student’s life from here on out because technology has changed?” Lindenberg said.
At The Tiger at Clemson University, names and addresses are printed in the police blotter in order to fulfill a responsibility the paper has to inform the community, said Tiger adviser and Associate Director of Student Media Patrick Neal.
“For better or worse — and some people don’t like to acknowledge this — but it is a well-read item,” Neal said.
Deciding when information goes into the blotter and when it becomes a full story, Neal said, is circumstantial, but often has to do with the severity of a crime. Patterns of crime, like a string of small but related thefts, might also warrant a story, he added.
“If it was a very public event that was witnessed by a lot of people, that might make it from the blotter into a stand-alone story. If it was a particularly serious crime, that would be a criteria for it being a stand-alone story,” he said.
Sometimes these policies lead to requests for stories or identifying information to be removed from the paper’s Web site, Neal said. If people can prove a record has been expunged, or the existing information is incorrect, the paper may take the story down. However, this will not be done for people simply embarrassed about their past actions.
“We can’t rewrite history,” he said.
While many papers have standing police blotter policies for their print versions, some, like The Pitt News at the University of Pittsburgh, are just establishing policies for the same information on websites.
Current Editor-in-Chief Drew Singer began Pitt News’ policy that all blotter information printed in the paper also is posted to the website.
“If it’s newsworthy enough for print it’s newsworthy enough for web,” Singer said. As with The Tiger at Clemson, the police blotter is well read in the Pitt News for both information and entertainment.
“People want to know what’s happening around them, and they also want to know what their police are doing, and I think that’s very newsworthy, entertainment value aside,” he said.
Pitt News runs a disclaimer to ensure readers know the blotter information is straight from the police and has not been further investigated, Singer said. In terms of amending information after charges have been dropped or a record has been expunged, he said he would follow the same ethical guidelines for both stand-alone stories and blotter entries. “It’s the job of both everybody who’s writing and editing the blotter to keep an eye out for things that are worth following up on. But can we follow up on every single entry in the blotter? No,” Singer said.
Making this public information easily accessible is also a motivation for the Pitt News to print it in the paper and on the Web.
“It’s out there, it’s already public record and all we’re doing is our job,” he said. “Were taking information that’s out there and information that our readers find important enough to read, which is kind of where you draw the line, and we’re giving them access to that information.”
Goehler said even if the initial information provided by police later turns out to have been false, if there was no reason for a paper to think information was false when it was printed, it is still protected.
“It may later turn out that that information was false, but at the time of publication if you did not know that, you didn’t have actual knowledge of falsity, you had no reason to doubt the truth of the information contained on the public record, you’d have qualified privilege, either common law or statutory, depending on your jurisdiction, to publish that information,” Goehler said.
A privilege, either statutory (created by legislature) or common-law (created by court order) protects against liability even in the event of an error.
Editor-in-Chief of The Cavalier Daily Ross Lawrence said his paper publishes crime information, which is important to the community, but for the paper’s purpose, the identifications of those involved are irrelevant.
The paper’s policy has been long-standing, but is maintained by Lawrence, who said journalists are provided with identifying information, and could print it but they choose not to.
“For us, I just don’t really see where that information is particularly beneficial to the student body. I think its good to give people a sense of where crimes are happening,” Lawrence said. “In terms of knowing names it’s not really to protect anyone, I would have no real problem publishing a name, its just I don’t think it’s particularly helpful.”
The choice not to print the names and identifying information, which Lawrence said he believes is irrelevant, eliminates several problems, like takedown requests and a lack of follow-up on a blotter entry including a person’s name.
SOC’s Carter said deciding to print a name should be done circumstantially, and not as a result of a strict policy.
“I don’t think a blanket policy of always doing it or never doing it is appropriate. I think you have to look at the circumstances of each case and decide what is responsible, what’s professional, what the needs of the community are what the needs of the people involved may be and so I don’t know that there is a single answer. I don’t think that there is a single proper answer to that question,” Carter said.
Some states, like California and Massachusetts, restrict the information police release more than others. But the information released on campus should be no different than that given to the community, he said.
“The campus environment should be no different than the local community surrounding it. If in the local community that information is a matter of public record, it should be disclosed and discussed on campus no different than it would be in the surrounding community.”
There have recently been advancements on many campuses in how safety and crime information is distributed. The responsibility to inform the community, Carter said, must remain with the student media, and not be thrust solely upon the police.
“In this world of electronic communication we exist in now, it’s important to remember that student journalists still play a critical role in getting campus crime and safety information out to their communities,” Carter said. “It’s not something that [should] ever be dependent on campus police departments sending out text messages or other forms of communication. The campus media still have a vital role to fill and they need to continue to remain engaged in filling that role so their campus communities can be informed and make informed decisions about not only their own safety, but the accountability of the processes that are keeping them safe.”
By Katie Maloney, SPLC staff writer
reports, Spring 2010