Naming suspects in the media: The Internet made me do it

Media analyst David Brauer has a fascinating article at MinnPost about media policies in printing or broadcasting the name of suspects who have not been officially charged with a crime. The issue is too important for you to settle for my paraphrasing, so please be sure to read the post. Essentially, in the really-short-shelf-life news era of the Internet, competitive rationale is responsible for an apparent increase in naming the names of suspects in cases where the suspect has not yet been charged.

Brauer cites the policies of WCCO as an example. And he includes the policies outlined by the MPR news director, Bill Wareham.

Overall, stations and newspapers say they are reluctant to name suspects until they are charged out of a sense of “fairness.” The theory is once they’re charged, their names become fair game. It’s an argument, though, that has some logical flaws. Does being charged make it more likely the suspect “did it?” Does not having enough legal evidence against a suspect mean he (or she) didn’t?

Perhaps Brauer is right that competitive juices whipped into a frenzy by the Internet are at work here. But there’s another, less interesting, factor.

Here’s Scott Libin’s response to me in an article on the subject that I wrote in 1999, after some media — including MPR — refused to run Donald Blom’s name, the then-suspect in the Katie Poirier case.

“What other elements do you omit?” he asks.”Do you not explain that he had a home in the area? If you do explain it, but you don’t identify him, then don’t you cast negative light potentially on everybody on that approximate description who has a home in the area? I don’t think it’s always the moral high ground to withhold information.”

And here’s Libin’s comments to Brauer in his current article:

“We now start from the premise that reporting truths is our primary obligation, and that we withhold such information only for a good reason.”

There’s really no detectable shift in position by Libin. The only difference is that Libin worked at Channel 5 when he made his comments to me, and now he’s running the WCCO newsroom.

But even back in 1999, the then-news director at WCCO, Ted Canova, made it clear that naming suspects or not naming suspects was not an inviolate policy at his station.

“The big dilemma is if he’s not charged. In one way we would look very credible that here’s a man that everybody else has named and identified, but the cops didn’t have enough to charge him. And we were the only ones to protect his privacy and his reputation. On the other hand, knowing what we know about what he’s suspected of doing, the dilemma is: he could be a public threat. If he’s a public threat, then we have a dilemma over whether to name him.”

Brauer says WCCO staffers, citing longtime cop beat reporter Carolyn Lowe, are a little upset concerned about the “new” policy. Do they not remember their performance in the Brad Dunlap story? He was never charged in the 1995 disappearance and murder of his wife. But that didn’t stop the media, including Lowe, from naming his as a suspect. There’s fairness. And then there’s juicy news. (Disclaimer: MPR named Dunlap, too.)

And that’s the reality in most newsrooms I’ve found. While there may be a policy, it’s a flexible one.

Is it about fairness? Not really. Mostly it’s about the media covering its behind in case they do have the wrong guy. If it were about fairness, then everyone would abide by Minnesota News Council boss Gary Gilson who told me in that original article that news organizations shouldn’t release a name until the person is found guilty.

And all that idea will get you in a newsroom is a funny look.

  • bsimon

    “Essentially, in the really-short-shelf-life news era of the Internet, competitive rationale is responsible for an apparent increase in naming the names of suspects in cases where the suspect has not yet been charged.”

    I wonder if that’s a reasonable argument to make. Is ‘naming of suspects’ a criteria by which news consumers select outlets? I’m thinking not.

  • Bob – thanks for the links, the compliments and your own impressive historical record and analysis. A few clarifications to add to the mix.

    Though your piece focused on TV, e Internet factor here is much more in play at the Strib; their own branded community sites are scooping the paper. As we both noted, Scott Libin is basically bringing a consistent philosophy with him from Channel 5 to Channel 4 that pre-dates the ‘net and I think is largely apart from it.

    By the way, I wouldn’t say Caroline is upset; more concerned. And despite my own contrast of “high wall” and “low wall” policies, everyone has a “juicy” exception. However, the material difference is, at least at CCO, they’ll be saying “why not” publish names instead of why. I wasn’t able to put this in the piece, but an enhanced follow-up protocol could – repeat, could – mean that some low-level exonerations will be reported that now aren’t.

    I wish I had had your historical memory – I mean, I wrote about Brad Dunlap for Law & Politics well after the media coverage had crested.

  • Bob Collins

    Historical memory. At this age, that’s all I’ve got left. (g)

    Your point about the branded sites scooping the core medium is an interesting one, and one I think is going to provide plenty of, umm, “tension” in newsrooms.

    Your point about newsrooms looking for reasons not to withhold a name rather reasons to is also a fascinating one since the mindset of newsrooms w.r.t. stories (this me speaking with nothing more than anecdotal evidence again) is that’s the opposite of how newsroom evaluate stories. I think we tend to consider a tidbit NOT a story until it can be proven that it is. That’s been my experience, anyway, and I acknowledge it’s one that drives me crazy.

  • I too am impressed with your archival efficiency, Bob, and I was relieved to see that my comments to David did not contradict what I told you nine years ago. (When I said, “We now start from the premise,” I meant that this is a change for WCCO, not for me.)

    But I have to challenge your suggestion that, “If it were about fairness, then … news organizations shouldn’t release a name until the person is found guilty.” As you know, that’s the way it’s done in some countries — by custom or by law — but I don’t buy that withholding a defendant’s name all the way through a trial constitutes more fairness. And to whom else do we extend that courtesy? Or must one face criminal charges in order to have one’s identity protected?

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t buy the notion that fairness requires silence until after the trial either and didn’t mean to imply that it was.

    But the “official” act of being charged, it seems to me, doesn’t really do much in the way of fairness. Is the person more guilty after he’s been charged than before? Does it REALLY mean the cops had more evidence before he was charged (but after being picked up?).

    Maybe. But what I’m saying is by waiting until after he/she/it has been charged to name a suspect, it’s more about us — the MEDIA — being able to say, “hey, it’s OK, he’s been charged.”

    to me, it’s all too much like the rationale media uses to exclude candidates from debates. You now, you have to poll 5 percent or some pretty arbitrary number.