Identity crisis

When it comes to campus crime reporting, journalists have different philosophies on whether -- and when -- to name names

A female student at a small West Virginia college accuses three basketball players of sexual assault.

Her name makes no appearance in any newspapers; the names of her alleged attackers, however, are splattered across regional front pages. They appear again when those same men are kicked off their basketball team and expelled.

More than a year later, the woman sits atop a witness stand and admits she made the whole thing up.

What happened in the 1980s at Salem College is rare, said Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Chairman Kevin Smith, who worked in the area at the time as a journalist, but college papers are still operating largely under the same model that cost those three men their reputations.

The ethics of crime reporting are slippery, subjective and hard to define. Few stories have more at stake than those that deal with life and death, guilt and innocence. The decision-making — from how to word allegations to what information to include or exclude in a crime blotter item — is something that requires ethical discussion and dissection.

Ironically, the crime beat is often relegated to those reporters lowest in the newsroom food chain.

“I think that crime reporting is one of the most difficult things to do,” said Smith, who teaches journalism at James Madison University. “It’s one of the hardest things to cover, and, for whatever reason, they take the youngest people and put them in that situation.”

The art of crime news stems from the intense attention to detail required, Smith said. A transposed letter or omitted initial can mean an innocent person is essentially accused of a crime.

“Sometimes we approach them fairly loose,” Smith said.

On the blotter

Every front page will see its fair share of news stories on criminal activity. Often, however, it’s what’s inside the paper that gets the most eyeballs. Appearing every day, once a week or just online, the campus crime blotter remains a popular source of community knowledge, whether it’s seeing who was caught brawling outside a bar or pinpointing where thefts are happening around town.

When it comes to informing the campus community about criminal activity, deciding what details to include can be nearly as important as getting the information right.

Georgetown University’s The Hoya newspaper runs a crime blotter in every Friday’s edition. Included are alleged crimes, locations, times reported and a quick one- to two-sentence summary of the report.

Hoya Editor-in-Chief Eamon O’Conner said the blotter is part of the newspaper’s duty to its campus.

“We publish the complete blotter that the Department of Public Safety provides us each week because we take it as our responsibility to inform the community of all instances of crime on campus — regardless of whether or not we write a story on it, and even if the reports are available on the DPS website, too,” he said.

On the other coast, UCLA’s The Daily Bruin compiles incidents for Crimewatch, a graphic map of police reports in the campus area, instead of a traditional blotter.

Visually, Crimewatch makes it easier for students to be aware of incidents, said editor-in-chief Lauren Jow, and it also helps the paper spot trends in and hotspots of criminal activity.

What’s in a name?

Both Jow and O’Conner said their papers omit names from these everyday crime reports. They don’t run the names of victims – and they also don’t run the names of suspects, something that sets them apart from many other publications.

The danger posed to campus by someone caught for public intoxication is minimal; identifying suspects is likely more embarrassing than informative in these situations. But that’s not a school of thought shared by everyone.

As to whether his paper runs the name of a criminal suspect in a full news story, it’s a decision that depends on the severity of the charge, O’Conner said.

“We’re not in the business of causing irreparable harm to someone’s image,” he said.

For Jow, the decision on whether to run a suspect’s name depends on the potential harm to other students and staff on campus. Those accused of violence are more likely to see their names in print.

In instances of alleged sexual assault or incidents that pose “greater danger to the public,” Bruin policy is to leave out the name of the victim, but run the identity of the suspect.

“Our main priority is the safety of our campus community,” Jow said.

That practice of keeping alleged sexual assault victims anonymous is the widely accepted standard at both collegiate and professional papers; but newsrooms should have a discussion about whether it’s the right policy, said Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

During her time as editor of the Des Moines Register in the late ‘80s, Overholser began asking victims of sexual assault to come forward and identify themselves, in hopes of overcoming the stigma attached to rape.

The result was a Pulitzer Prize for the paper and an ongoing discussion about the ethics of identification.

“We should be aware that in not following our normal practices in naming adult victims of crimes or adults bringing charges, we should ask if we are contributing to the notion that rape was so unmentionable that people ought to hide in that dark corner,” Overholser said.

In other words, the hiding of alleged rape victims may actually feed the stigma that they should be ashamed. Furthermore, in the digital age, newspapers are no longer gatekeepers. Overholser uses the example of the 2004 rape accusations against Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant to illustrate the point that victims’ names are likely to surface and, when they do, at the hands of “more unsavory people.”

“There were people on the Internet who were big Kobe Bryant fans who were scurrilous in defaming her,” she said. “Meanwhile, the editor of The Denver Post is proudly noting he’s protecting her.”

Not only is there an argument to be had about whether anonymity protects alleged victims, but also whether it is a journalist’s job to shield them.

“What gives us this wisdom as journalists to determine who needs our protection?” Overholser said. “To me, the major question is why any journalist would be comfortable taking a stand, which seems to indicate that the journalist understands who needs protection, when there has been no judgment in court?”

Points of contention

On the Georgetown campus, student editors contend campus secrecy leaves them with little say when it comes to publicizing the names of student sexual assault suspects.

In an Oct. 25 editorial, The Hoya discussed what it deemed a lack of seriousness on campus when it comes to discussing sexual violence. The university’s disciplinary policy is cited as one of the factors in creating a “relaxed attitude about sexual violence.”

The student conduct code states that, generally, only the person accused of a violation is told of the case’s outcome. However, in certain cases the alleged victim will also be informed -- provided they sign a non-disclosure agreement. That requirement does not apply in sexual assault cases, but the Hoya argues the policy is problematic anyway.

“Perhaps if assailants knew their names could be made public, they would be less likely to even consider committing a sexual crime in the first place.”

O’Conner said the policy is “largely a PR move” for the university.

However, Rachel Pugh, a spokeswoman for the university, said the editorial is inaccurate and cited the confidentiality exception in the student conduct code for sexual assault cases.

The paper’s broader concern, stated by both O’Conner and the editorial, revolves around a perceived trivialization of certain crimes.

The policy acts as a protection for those accused and not as a deterrent for the behavior, O’Conner said.

But naming suspects as a deterrent has its own ethical considerations, even in lesser offenses than violent or sexual crimes.

The potential consequences of identifying those accused of crimes are “far-reaching and, in this high-tech world, forever,” said Ivan Dominguez, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We know many people out there, the moment they see someone arrested or charged, they decide in their own mind that person is guilty,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez refers to the practice of running mug shots of arrested individuals — without an accompanying story — on newspaper websites; but the consequences of identification apply to all instances, including blotter items and crime stories.

“Apart from never really being able to scrub that perception from all the minds of all those who’ve seen that posted, you’ve got the very real consequence of ... you were wrongfully arrested, (and) you’re going to apply for a job somewhere and never know that they ran your name through Google and made a decision based upon things they saw,” he said.

The importance of the follow-up

What happens when the person accused of a crime is exonerated?

A secondary story on the outcome of the case can be just as important — and fair — as the initial reports. But Smith says many newspapers have spotty records when it comes to following up with the fate of the alleged, which Smith calls “one of the great collapses of reporting.”

“It’s amazing to me that you can report a crime, and you can report someone having been arrested, but if the case is thrown out, we do not exonerate that person’s behavior on the front pages of the paper,” he said.

That lack of follow-up can be of dire consequence to a suspect who’s been named.

“As we all know, we’re not so famous in the journalism world for getting back on stories and saying with equally prominent play, ‘It turns out this guy was not found guilty,’” Overholser said.

For their part, student journalists like Jow and O’Conner recognize this inequality of coverage.

Jow said she and her staff always make an effort to report that charges were dropped, especially for crimes that warranted a full article as opposed to a spot on Crimewatch.

The follow-up is crucial for that person’s reputation, she said.

But the lapse in reporting doesn’t stop with neglecting to acknowledge dropped charges, Smith said. In the effort to be impartial and fair, an acquittal or exoneration should receive the same weight as allegations, he said.

“Instead, it’s usually two to three paragraphs in one column under a three-deck (headline),” he said. “That’s a legitimate complaint.”

Discuss, then publish

Journalism is a balancing act, and the scales do not always tip in favor of “innocent until proven guilty.”

When deciding what information should be made public about victims and those accused of crimes — no matter how large or small — experts say each newsroom should have an ethical discussion to weigh the potential harm against the benefit.

There is a balance to be struck between the public’s right to know, the victim’s right to privacy and the accused’s right to a fair trial.

“To me, it’s a matter of having a discussion of what’s appropriate,” Smith said. “I think you have to take a look at your community standards.”

Each crime story involves ample deliberation on the value of publishing details, O’Conner said.

Overholser’s advice to college editors, who live and work in a “charged environment,” lies in consideration for all sides, including the perspectives of victims but also those of the accused.

“The main thing I want them to think about is these questions that I’m raising that I don’t think get considered enough,” she said. “I do want them to think about the particular stigma attached to women, so unfairly and cruelly and ignorantly ... I don’t really feel inclined to tell people what to do, but I do want them to think.”

More than anything, consistency is key for judicious news judgment.

“I think that it’s important for every newspaper to have some policy or understanding,” Smith said. “You need to know and be consistent.”

SIDEBAR: A Daily dose of the funnies

There are other ethical decisions to be had when it comes to crime, including just what to put at the top of the page.

The student journalists at the The Michigan Daily have taken a slightly different approach when reporting criminal activity.

Every day on Page 2 of the print paper, the crime report takes center stage. While the blurbs themselves are often mundane or inconsequential, the headlines atop them are what make them unique.

“Fire gets canned,” The Daily reported Oct. 24. “Trailer trauma” and “Inappropriate drunk man” marked the edition 10 days earlier.

“We do try to do attention-grabbing headlines,” said editor-in-chief Stephanie Steinberg. “The crimes themselves aren’t really funny, but the headlines are.”

This semester, Steinberg began the Crime Report blog on the newspaper’s website. The content is identical to what runs on Page 2, but now the blotter blurbs — culled from Department of Public Safety incident logs — are given more prominence online.

Previously, the crime reports had been lumped in with the news story on The Daily’s The Wire blog.

The Crime Report is a popular feature, and Steinberg said that stems from an understanding between the paper and its campus audience — though the headline may be in tongue-and-cheek, the story is not making light of the incidents reported therein.

That said, every now and then reporters take the joke a little too far.

“I will change a lot of them if they’re just too inappropriate or just too out there,” Steinberg said. “Sometimes our reporters go a little crazy. But we try to keep them to a certain standard.”

By Nicole Hill, SPLC staff writer

reports, Winter 2011-12