Guidelines for Handling the Police Story
By Tommy Miller
Former Managing Editor, the Houston Chronicle
Much of what the news media use or don’t use in crime stories has been determined by both court rulings and evolving understandings among the media itself toward achieving fairness and completeness.
While media organizations have developed guidelines for crime stories, the guidelines are not binding on individuals or news organizations.
In fact, most news organizations do not use such guidelines as determining factors in making decisions about information in crime stories. Few editors, I suspect, even know about such guidelines.
Some news organizations have developed their own guidelines. Others have a general understanding among reporters and editors about handling information in crime stories, but deal with sensitive situations on a case-by-case basis. Some editors subscribe to the theory that detailed written guidelines can be too confining, especially when legal disputes arise.
Still, most media do follow some general guidelines on handling information in crime stories. But most media will make exceptions to their guidelines when two factors are prominent in a crime story:
•First, the news value of the story. In high-impact stories, however, media often will use names of suspects as soon as they are available. This is especially the case when a well-known person, such as a movie or sports celebrity, is named as a suspect. Be especially careful in naming suspects when they are not well-known people. One such case involved Richard Jewell, a security guard who was wrongly suspected in the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. If a person who is not well known is named as a suspect, it is best to attribute the information to a law enforcement official, preferably on the record by name.
•Second, the public nature of the crime. If a crime is committed in a public place, with many witnesses, news media again are more likely to make exceptions to general guidelines. An example can be cited a few years ago in Houston, when a high school student was fatally shot in the back as he was in line in the school cafeteria. Another student—a juvenile—was taken into custody and accused of the shooting. News media generally do not use the names of juveniles accused in crime stories, but in this case, most Houston media used the name of the girl who was accused in the shooting.
In more routine crime stories, however, guidelines generally followed by the media fall into two categories: What may be used in the story and what should not be used.
Here are items that media generally use when relevant:
1.The name of the accused after a formal complaint has been filed. Names of juveniles generally are not used. The accused person’s age, residence, employment, marital status and similar biographical information may be used.
Special care should be taken with identification and biographical information. Some of the information given to law enforcement officers may be incorrect. And law enforcement officers can make mistakes with information such as addresses and places of employment. If the information cannot be confirmed independently, reporters should use attribution, such as: Police said Tom Miller, 48, of 3723 Grennoch, was charged with . . . . Miller is a computer technician for Hughes Tool Co., police said.
3.The amount of bail and whether the accused is in custody.
4.The identity of and biographical information concerning the complaining party and victim.
5.The identity of the investigating and arresting agency and the length of the investigation.
6.The circumstances of the arrest, including time, place, resistance, pursuit and weapons used.
Here’s what the news media generally avoid using in routine stories of a crime:
1.The contents of an admission or a confession.
2.Opinions about an accused person’s reputation, guilt or innocence.
3.Opinions concerning evidence or arguments in a case.
4.Statements concerning anticipated testimony or the truthfulness of prospective witnesses.
5.The results of fingerprint, polygraph (lie detector) and ballistic or laboratory tests.
6.Precise description of items seized or discovered during investigation until such items are the subject of a charge.
A Further Explanation
Again, a keyword in the above guidelines is routine. While news media may follow guidelines on what not to disclose when dealing with routine stories, a major story will bring a different approach to those guidelines. It is important to remember that each story is different. Many, many factors must be taken into consideration in the handling of each story.
Consequently, reporters should remember the distinction between gathering and reporting the news. Gathering information does not mean the information will appear in the published version.
Reporters should always attempt to get as much information as possible about a story, especially a major story, because editors may decide certain information should be included in the published version. But, if decisions are made that certain information should be published, it can’t be published if it hasn’t been gathered.
Here are some of the most sensitive areas for editing decisions in crime stories:
Using Juveniles’ Names
In recent years, this has been one of the most troublesome areas for decisions in crime stories.
Most media generally do not use names of juveniles in routine stories. But in high-impact stories or in especially brutal crimes more and more media are deciding to use names of juveniles.
For example, in Houston in 1992, two teen-age girls were brutally strangled after they stumbled across a gang initiation rite, police said. Six teen-agers, one of them 14-years-old, were arrested and charged in the killings. Five teen-agers who were legally adults were arrested and charged. A sixth teen-ager was 14 years old was taken into custody by juvenile court authorities. Later, the name was obtained and used.
Identification of Victims
News media generally do not use the names of rape victims or the names of children who are the victims of some crimes, especially sexual assault.
However, in some cases, the media may decide to use the name of a rape victim. For example, if the victim is a prominent person, the name may be used. Also, if the victim agrees to the name being used, editors may decide to use it. When the name of a rape victim is used, the story should say why it is used. For example, when a name is used, many newspapers now include a sentence to this effect: The Houston Chronicle generally does not use the names of rape victims, but the victim agreed to the use of her name for this story.
Victim identification is especially sensitive in stories involving children. For example, if a man is accused of sexually molesting his 8-year-old daughter and if the name of the man is used in a story, the daughter has, in effect, been identified. In routine stories, most media would not use the name of the man.
The reverse can apply when juveniles are involved in crimes involving relatives. For example, in a story about a 15-year-old boy being taken into custody in the shooting deaths of his teen-age sister and his grandmother, the Houston Chronicle used the names of the sister and the grandmother. This, in effect, identified the 15-year-old.
Ethnic and Racial Identification
Reporters and editors should take special care when using ethnic and racial descriptions in crime stories.
Ethnic and racial identification is a particularly sensitive area when identifying those accused of crimes. Use this simple guideline: Do not use racial identification unless it is specifically relevant to a story.
For example: “A 23-year-old Vietnamese man was charged with the robbery of . . .” The fact that the man charged is Vietnamese should not be used in a story such as this unless other information is reported later in the story that makes the man’s ethnic background relevant.
Another example: “Police said the suspect, a black man about 6-feet tall, ran out of the store after the robbery . . .” When it comes down to it, this isn’t much of an identification. How many people would fit that description? The emphasis is on the race of the man. And that’s not much to go on.
Race or ethnicity should not be considered relevant if you have that and little else. If there is other information on the suspect, then race might properly be included, as in: “A black man about 6 feet tall wearing a red baseball cap and a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt . . .”
Law enforcement officers sometimes use blanket descriptions of people that may in fact may be incorrect. For example, a law enforcement officer may describe a suspect as being Vietnamese, when in fact, the suspect may be Chinese, or Cambodian or Korean.
Most news media avoid use of statements of confession in routine crime stories, but on major stories, such statements often are used. Still, special care should be taken with the word “confession.” The word implies guilt and therefore is prejudicial. Statement is a preferred word.
Most media also avoid using information regarding fingerprint, polygraph and other tests. The reason is that the tests may not be admissible in court. But, again, on a major story, such information may be used.
Background, Opinions About the Accused
For routine stories, the media will report routine background about an accused person, such as age, residence, place of employment, etc. However, for a major story, the media will gather and report as much relevant information as possible about an accused person. This may include information gained from interviews with people who know the accused, with various opinions and descriptions of the person.
For example, in 1992, after a man was accused of killing five people and wounding 18 others on a Long Island Railroad commuter train, The New York Times assigned a reporter to write a profile of the accused man—Colin Ferguson. The story included interviews with school teachers, former employers, former landlords.
The sensitive area in such stories is to be careful of clearly prejudicial quotes, especially in crimes of a less public nature than the commuter train killings. For example, editors should avoid using such quotes as, “He did it. I know he did. I just know it in my heart,” a neighbor, Joe Smith, said. In this case, Joe Smith is merely stating an opinion without any information to back it up.
Here are some other items to note regarding crime stories:
Loaded, or Judgmental Words
Editorial or judgmental words should be avoided in crime stories. For example, “The stolen tools were found in Joe Doakes’ garage.” A better way: “The tools were found in . . .” Loot, in reference to recovered property, carries prejudicial connotation. So does connive.
Many newspeople object to the use of the term “charges” as a synonym for complaint on semantic grounds.
But you will find many others who use the words interchangeably. Still, charged should be used as a verb. “He was charged” is considered correct usage. Correct usage dictates the use of “A complaint (or affidavit) was filed charging Joe Doakes with . . .” Reference in a news story thereafter should be to a complaint or affidavit having been filed, not to charges having been filed.
Also, don’t say police charged a person with a particular offense. Police can arrest people but cannot file charges. A court official, such as an official in the U.S. attorney’s or state attorney’s office, files a complaint.
Allegedly is a word that too many in the media use carelessly and incorrectly. Allegedly should be avoided completely. Alleged may serve a useful purpose to describe an alleged crime.
But allegedly avoids the most crucial aspect of the police story: attribution. Stories should never say that so and so allegedly did such and such. This is no safeguard against libel. Instead, say who said so and so did it, as in police said. Or, say that so and so was charged or indicted in the offense. A person is not alleged, but rather a crime or a condition is alleged.
“Reportedly” is a first cousin of alleged. Reporters sometimes use such words in an attempt to couch phraseology. Such usage usually results in semantically unclear structure, such as “The robbery reportedly occurred . . .,” raising the obvious question of whether the robbery did or did not occur. “Accused” and “suspected” are similarly troublesome.
Sometimes reporters mistakenly say that police dismissed a complaint. But, technically, police are powerless to dismiss complaints. This must be done by the proper magistrate.
Clichés and Other Misuses
Reporters and editors should be especially mindful of avoiding clichés and other misuses in crime stories. For example, words sometimes humorously misused are “apparently” and “apparent” as in “He apparently died at the scene,” or “He died of an apparent heart attack.” People do not apparently die. It should be, “He died, apparently of a heart attack.”
Other trouble spots are expressions such as “not immediately identified pending notification of next of kin” or “rushed to the hospital.” What the reporter really means in the first example is “authorities would not release the identification of the victim until relatives were notified.” In the second example, in emergency situations, few people meander to the hospital. It’s better to simply say, “taken to the hospital.”
Bond is a more appropriate word than bail. Sometimes cash might be called bail, but cash bond is a more common term in Texas.