A policy change in how we report crime
Our weekly Crime Briefs, posted at Postindependent.com each Friday afternoon and published in print on Saturdays, are consistently among our best-read items online and, we presume, in print.
It’s human nature to want to read about crime; it’s why TV networks offer so many true-crime shows and police dramas, why so many movies and books are based on crime. It’s dramatic, it has pathos, it reveals the human condition, it’s sad — and, at times, it’s funny in a dark way. People share and talk about tragedies, weird crimes and seemingly dumb criminals (most of whom had troubled upbringings and/or face mental health and/or substance abuse issues, which takes the fun out of chuckling at their struggles).
I also believe that, in a twisted bit of human nature, hearing about others’ troubles helps us feel better about our own flaws — as a former boss of mine liked to say, “There are people out there who make you and me seem normal.”
In starting the weekly Crime Briefs a few months ago, we were aware of all of that. We also sought to bring some consistency to how we report crime. We set a bar that, except in unusual circumstances such as an incident involving a public official, prominent person, a clear public safety threat or a public spectacle, we would report only felony arrests.
We will keep that philosophy, but, effective last Friday, we no longer include the names of many of the people arrested.
Going forward, we will name only those people charged with clearly serious or high-profile crimes whose cases we intend to follow through the legal process. To underscore: Naming a person arrested now signals our commitment to follow that case and report the outcome.
We will continue to write about almost all felonies, but in most instances we will describe what happened without naming the people arrested.
This is because in the Internet age, an arrest, regardless of how the case comes out, sticks to a person’s name in an online search pretty much forever.
Most criminal cases are resolved by plea agreements, and in many cases, felony charges are pleaded down to misdemeanors. People with little to no criminal history often plead guilty to misdemeanors and have the conviction erased if they complete a diversion program.
We have concluded that it’s simply not fair to name these people when they are arrested but then not follow their case it its conclusion and report the outcome.
This is a problem nationwide for journalists in the digital age. Almost no news organization has adequate staffing to track all crime it reports all the way through the justice system. It began to trouble me in Cincinnati, where I led the news staff of a much larger organization — but not large enough to track all of the crime stories that we reported.
I took a number of anguished calls from people who had committed crimes years before or had drunken driving arrests reported in the crime blotters of our affiliated weekly papers who were haunted by these incidents as they applied for jobs or sought rental housing.
We feel obliged to tell readers about the serious crimes in their communities for people’s safety and curiosity.
This reporting also points out trends. For example, our weekly Crime Briefs show clearly that methamphetamine remains a major problem in Garfield County even as it has waned somewhat nationally from the late 1990s and early 2000s, and (Rifle) Citizen Telegram Editor Ryan Hoffman is working on a deeper look at meth.
But it’s not our proper role or intent to make it harder for someone who makes a mistake, whether that’s theft in a down time of life or a drug problem later addressed, to get a job and live a better life.
At the same time, we aren’t going soft on crime. Names will still be reported in serious or otherwise high-profile cases that we believe are important or interesting enough to follow. Some of those might be misdemeanors. We also will follow some cases and report the outcome with the criminal’s name even if we don’t name the person initially.
This change introduces a bit more subjectivity, but it’s our job to make news judgments as we work to keep our readers informed. One thing we won’t do is make individual exceptions. If a crime fits our criteria for reporting a name, we will.
If you have been named in Crime Briefs — or in a Post Independent story some time ago — and the outcome of the case was not reported but you would like it to be, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 970-384-9110. If you can provide valid documentation of a dismissal or reduction in the original charge that we reported, we will print the outcome.
I’m sure that some people will disagree with this approach, especially if they are among those accused of crimes whom we choose to name. But we believe this policy is a good step in balancing the public’s interest in crime news with fairness in the digital age.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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