Journalism and the lynch mob mentality

I’ve never been a big fan of the policies in some Twin Cities newsrooms — including ours — of (generally) not naming suspects in criminal cases until charges are actually filed. It’s not that I don’t agree that doing so may lead to the destruction of reputations when facts aren’t known, it’s that the policies — generally — are filled with hypocrisy. The news that broke yesterday that an SUV owned by former Vikings player and broadcaster Joe Senser was involved in the hit-and-run death of a man is a sadly perfect example.

When charges are filed, charging documents are usually released to the public, giving us more facts to provide a somewhat more credible picture of what happened. But there’s nothing in the journalist’s book of ethics that says these are the ones you extend to average people, and these are the ones you extend to famous people — whether they’re white and rich or not.

Why? Because ethics don’t work that way; you either have them or you don’t. “Everyone else is doing it” has always been a poor foundation for a good argument. The entire philosophy of fairness depends on an equal application.

What we do know, based on some digging by reporters, is that the SUV is probably the one that killed Anousone Phanthavong and that it is owned by Joe Senser.

On Twitter this morning — and other media, too — it doesn’t matter what we don’t know.







Meanwhile, the Star Tribune is already running a poll saying Senser’s is a moral dilemma, even though we don’t know exactly what dilemma that is. No matter. Seventy-five percent say they’d turn in a family member involved in a hit-and-run. Good to know, but it doesn’t really tell us what’s going on here. It only implies that the Sensers are actively engaged in stonewalling an investigation. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. Certainly, we don’t know.

There’s nothing wrong with speculation per se. I do it all the time when writing about aviation incidents. But we have a responsibility to be informed and connect dots that are facts. We’re not doing that here and we in the news media are willing accomplices by pretending all of the reasons for protecting the identity of someone who hasn’t been charged with a crime don’t also exist here.

We don’t know that Senser and his family are getting preferential treatment. We don’t have any evidence that investigators are cutting him a break because he’s rich and/or white. We don’t know who was driving. We don’t know why they didn’t stop. We don’t know what the advice of their attorney is, although it’s worth pointing out that the attorney contacted the State Patrol.

What we do know is that investigators in these parts have a good track record of figuring out why someone ends up dead. The rest is up to a jury that, hopefully, isn’t on Twitter today.

The Senser family promises a statement “in a day or two,” and perhaps then we’ll have a clearer picture of what’s going on here. In the meantime, reality will be created by the dribs and drabs of information from people who have an interest in the reality dribs and drabs of information create.

Update 3:18 p.m. – The attorney for the Senser family reports the SUV was driven by Amy Senser, Joe Senser’s wife.

Update 5:04 p.m. – Here, for background, is MPR’s policy:

In cases where law enforcement officials arrest or otherwise detain an individual without charging that person with a crime, MPR News may name such individuals in its reports. It will be up to the News Director or editor(s) overseeing the story to determine whether the situation warrants naming the suspect. Editors should consider whether MPR’s naming of an uncharged suspect will do irreparable harm to the suspect’s reputation if authorities decide not to charge and whether the public’s right to be informed is worth taking that risk.

In cases where a decision to name an uncharged suspect is made it is incumbent on MPR News to provide as much context as possible to let the audience determine whether an arrest was justified. Such context must include the fact that charges have not been filed, an explanation of why not, and how long the law enforcement agency can legally detain the suspect. and like any story, mpr news will make every effort to contact principles in the story. Stories should also include any information about evidence implicating the suspect or any other information that will allow the audience evaluate the validity of an arrest. and finally, if MPR News produces a story about a suspect’s dentention or arrest without charges, it is committed to giving similar coverage in the event the suspect is released.