Naming names

Not much has changed in Twin Cities newsrooms since I wrote an article in 1999 on the clumsy application of ethics when it comes to naming the names of people who are arrested on the suspicion of committing a crime, but who have not yet been charged.

Remember Richard Jewell? He was the guy who was arrested for the Atlanta Olympics bombing. He didn’t do it, but he was named as a suspect and that was enough to ruin his life at the time.

Minnesota Public Radio has a policy of not naming suspects until they’re charged precisely for that reason. But everything gets blurry when (a) Another media source names the name and (b) the person is “famous.”

Today, the news is out that the co-host of a popular talk show on a Twin Cities radio station has been arrested — but not yet charged — for allegedly possessing meth. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t. In any event, it doesn’t matter anymore. At best, his career is over.

Read the old article and then let’s hear your opinion.

  • Dave

    What changes when he’s charged? It’s still “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.” When police arrest someone it’s a public act on the public record. I’d like to know what the police are doing.

    Of course there are caveats that should be included and reporters can get lazy in making efforts to reach the person or his attorney, if for no other reason than to remind readers that there will likely be another side to the story.

    But I’d rather have a blanket policy of naming arrestees than a wavering policy of “sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.” That invites trouble, it seems to me.

  • CaliGuy

    Like the reader above, I’d like to know what changes once they’re charged, as, again, they’re still in the “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” realm.

    However, I would like to see all of us in this country work towards a model where the identity is withheld until *conviction*.

    This is a model used in some European nations like Switzerland to protect the privacy of individuals. Are there costs to protecting an individual’s privacy? Yes there are — namely that the news media does not get the big, breaking headlines.

    But — and this is a big but — no one’s name is ruined simply because they were suspected or even charged with a crime.

    Conviction, therefore, should be the moment when the individual’s identity is revealed. Otherwise, they should be allowed to go about their business, in private, as the rest of us do.

  • Bob Collins

    // What changes when he’s charged.

    It means there’s probable cause to charge him… i.e. evidence.

    Take the case of Brad Dunlap — which I did in the old article. People think he did it because his name was plastered all over the news. WCCO worked him over pretty good, only he was never charged. My opinion? The police used a reporter who was very close to them to try to shake something loose from him.

    I think that’s one of the major problems with naming names: it’s possible for the media to be used by cops to pressure a suspect more.

    But the real problem is there isn’t a consistent policy in most newsrooms. It’s on a case-by-case basis, which means — to me — that it isn’t really a matter of ethics. Ethics don’t have exceptions.

  • Bob Collins

    //However, I would like to see all of us in this country work towards a model where the identity is withheld until *conviction*.

    That can work two ways depending on how such a law (which would be unconstitutional as long as public records are public). That could easily fall into people simply disappearing into the justice system.

  • Bob Collins

    //Conviction, therefore, should be the moment when the individual’s identity is revealed. Otherwise, they should be allowed to go about their business, in private, as the rest of us do.

    What about those 4 guys who tortured the mentally disabled young man in Dakota County? Suppose they were bailed out? And you had a vulnerable kid living next door?

    What about Jason McLaughlin, the kid up at Rocori who shot up the school and killed two kids? A key element of any story is “why?” If you don’t know the identity, you can’t tell that story and while some people who says “so what?”, I’d contend that understand what motivates someone to resort to that act made a lot of people — and kids — take a good sober look at themselves and the system (I also realize that there is still a fair amount of Neanderthal thinking that trying to understand why something happens is the same as approving of what happened)

    And what about Sen. Larry Craig?

  • fasolamatt

    And what do you do when the news is broken in the comments section of one of your blogs?

    (Link removed)

    (Bob: I would put the commenter on moderated status so his comments no longer automatically appeared.)

  • CaliGuy

    //What about Jason McLaughlin, the kid up at Rocori who shot up the school and killed two kids? A key element of any story is “why?”

    The priority in criminal matters should be the proper administration of justice.

    “Key elements” to stories, such as “why”, will surely have their day in court.

    By putting names or people who are apprehended and/or charged (before convicted), we as a society have made a practice of “trying them in the court of public opinion”. And that is precisely what you advocate with statements like, “A key element of any story is ‘why?’”

    It’s a shameful practice that has no defense, and to try to cut your moral fabric to fit is an exercise in futility.

  • Bob Collins

    //It’s a shameful practice that has no defense, and to try to cut your moral fabric to fit is an exercise in futility.

    No doubt. I view it, however, as the creation of a potential Star Chamber.

    The “why” question comes not to benefit or convict the defendant, but to lead society to examine its own practices as the result of an alleged incident.

    I think an open trial (for purposes of being able to name who the defendant is) has benefits for society and for justice.

  • CaliGuy

    I think you’re doing a disservice both to your blog readers and to our nation’s court systems in using the Star Chamber analogy and by asserting that defendants may somehow disappear “into the justice system.”

    Both are these statements are tremendous reaches in attempting to support your initial point and are not supporting in either the philosophy or practice of our justice system.

    By using such arguments, essentially what your thesis is, somewhat fantastically, is this: The media, by publishing the names of the accused, acts as and is the only watchdog for the civil liberties of the defendants.

    Hunh?

    We don’t live in Elizabethan England. Citizens of this nation are protected by our Constitution and Bill of Rights and by the carefully enumerated rights of the accused contained therein.

    The accused will not somehow disappear “into the justice system” if the media is not there to publicize their names.

    Think about it this way: How many criminal court proceedings take place every day across the nation that are never reported on by any form of media? Too many to count, obviously.

    Therefore, what is the problem in ensuring that *all* criminal proceedings are carried out in the same manner, devoid of media interference?

    To state once more, we need to do a better job of protecting the rights of privacy of the accused until they are *convicted* in a court of law.

  • Bob Collins

    So how does that work? Let’s say you’re one of the ministers who invested their retirement money with Tom Petters, how would it work? How are they to find out?

    What about Ted Stevens? So he would run for office again and the people of Alaska would not be able to know that their senator is charged with several crimes?

    His court case, which is now open for people to see and hear the evidence, would not be open?

    When Amy Goodman was arrested during the RNC, and everyone saw her being arrested, would your version of the law have prevented any of that video from being shown or the blogs and other news outlets from reporting on it?

    I understand and respect your position, but in many cases the events that happen take place in the open. Under your system, would that also be unreportable? So when several people were handcuffed in their apartment two days before the RNC, would the media not be able to tell you who they were or why they were being handcuffed and held?

    Also you didn’t answer my previous question regarding the kids in Dakota County..

    A fascinating topic, indeed. thanks for sharing your views.

  • fasolamatt

    OK, Bob, I failed to make my point. The redacted comment appeared on a blog on a website of and linked from the front page of one of Minnesota’s largest newspapers. Timestamped early Friday afternoon, before it appeared as a news story, and before word of the arrest appeared on the most notorious (and occasionally accurate) broadcasting rumor message board in the state. I can’t prove that it’s the first “media outlet” to get the story, and you may be able to prove that it’s not.

    Now, I’ll repeat the question:

    And what do you do when the news is broken in the comments section of one of your blogs?

    It’s 10:45 p.m. Saturday and the major newspaper website’s comment is still there.

  • CaliGuy

    Sure. I’ll indulge you, Bob.

    Again, for people who have merely scrolled to this comment, we should establish the context.

    You believe that the media should have the right to publish the name(s) of the accused once formal charges have been filed.

    I believe that the identities of the accused should remain private (a la Swiss privacy laws) until conviction.

    Here, then, are your examples and my responses:

    //So how does that work? Let’s say you’re one of the ministers who invested their retirement money with Tom Petters, how would it work? How are they to find out?

    Clearly the ministers will by privy to information regarding the Petters’ situation as they will obviously be interviewed by investigators and likely brought as witnesses due to their victimization in the case.

    //What about Ted Stevens? So he would run for office again and the people of Alaska would not be able to know that their senator is charged with several crimes? His court case, which is now open for people to see and hear the evidence, would not be open?

    This is an interesting one, as Stevens is up for election to a public office. Should the public have a right to know about his trial? Well, even though the public *does* know about his trial, this knowledge doesn’t seem to be having a huge impact on the campaign itself (the most recent poll out of Alaska — Rasmussen, 10/6/08 — shows Stevens maintaining a lead). Your use of this example seems to imply that you think the public would’ve had a more substantial negative response to the accusations against Stevens, though this does not seem to be the case *and* may have strengthened the resolve of Stevens’ supporters.

    //When Amy Goodman was arrested during the RNC, and everyone saw her being arrested, would your version of the law have prevented any of that video from being shown or the blogs and other news outlets from reporting on it?

    I would not be able to identify the woman appearing in such videos as “Amy Goodman” unless otherwise identified as such. Would you have been able to, Bob?

    //So when several people were handcuffed in their apartment two days before the RNC, would the media not be able to tell you who they were or why they were being handcuffed and held?

    Under Swiss privacy laws, the media would be able to report on why the accused were being held. However, no names would be used (without the permission of the accused). Notably, Bob, you didn’t include any names in this particular example — it didn’t seem to negatively affect your example, its weight or its importance to civil liberties, did it?

    //Also you didn’t answer my previous question regarding the kids in Dakota County.

    Here’s what the public needs to know with regard to this example (and, again, you didn’t use any names): Five suspects are facing charges. Four are currently being held in lieu of $100,000 bail. The fifth is mentally disabled himself. Is that all the public needs to know about this situation? Seems about right, doesn’t it? Would names have made any of it more important or been of use in protecting the general public? Hard to imagine.

    PS: In your original example regarding the Dakota County assaults, you mentioned that you felt the public should know the names of the accused in order to protect themselves in any of them made bail. It would seem to me that simply raising the required bail on those accused of kidnapping, assault, and (perhaps) attempted murder would be more effective in protecting the public than divulging the accused names’ would ever be.

  • Bob Collins

    //You believe that the media should have the right to publish the name(s) of the accused once formal charges have been filed.

    I don’t believe I ever said that here. I’m poking at both sides of the arguments to explore the merits and weaknesses of each.

    // In your original example regarding the Dakota County assaults, you mentioned that you felt the public should know the names of the accused in order to protect themselves in any of them made bail.

    That’s incorrect. I didn’t say how I felt. I asked a question to look at the issue from a perspective that is not ours.

    The fact I ask a question is not evidence of a conclusion, though I recognize that people will make that conclusion.

  • Bob Collins

    //Now, I’ll repeat the question:

    //And what do you do when the news is broken in the comments section of one of your blogs?

    The question was answered byvirtue of the removal of the link you provided.

    I don’t know what the policy of the newspaper is with regards to this so I can’t speak to what the newspaper should do with it. Derusha says WCCO broke the story on Friday night. I don’t know where they got the story. MPR News is not using the story at this time and that’s about all I can tell you. The policy of not naming people until they’re charged was not applied in this case because the editorial decision was made that it’s not the type of story we cover and that a sidekick on a radio show is not by definition “famous.”

    A story we might want to revisit is how a person becomes a meth addict in the first place and how can colleagues and family step in to stop it? Of course, we don’t need a famous person to be “peg” for that story. It’s a story that could’ve been done before Friday and certainly is worth doing now.