Should Journalists Name Juveniles in Crime Stories?

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A New Mexico editor argued that in crime reports, journalists should name juveniles charged or convicted of crimes. (Credit: Editor and Publisher, screenshot)

The Gallup Herald’s editor and publisher, Joseph J. Kolb, argued that naming “juvenile criminal suspects shouldn’t pose an ethical quandary.”

The Herald
is a free weekly New Mexico newspaper with a circulation of about 3,000 copies, according to Mondo Times.

Citing the case of a 17-year-old who is “charged with an open count of murder and two counts of tampering with evidence,” Kolb wrote that he thinks not naming a “juvenile offender” is unethical, even though journalism ethics codes usually advise caution in reporting on minors. Adding to the slippery slope on which Kolb is walking, the “juvenile offender” in the above case was “charged” with a crime and, thus, presumption of innocence is mandated until he/she is actually found guilty in a court of law.

Still, Kolb claimed

“No, naming a juvenile offender is not a breach of ethics. Not naming one would be, because it leaves a hole in the story and could put the public at risk. Who committed the crime? Somebody did; otherwise there wouldn’t have been a crime.”

News outlets are generally reluctant to name juveniles involved in or alleged in crimes because “the publicity may stigmatize them throughout their lives,” as Kolb noted.

But, Kolb countered that stigma and commented that perhaps instead the publicity would “set them straight.”

“If media sources stick to the facts of the story rather than the ramifications of using a juvenile’s name, they can find solace in the old-fashioned social value of the media — to inform the community, advocate for the victims, and possibly even prevent future incidents.”

Kolb cited the Santa Fe New Mexican’s advice that naming juveniles is on a case by case basis.  According to the newspaper’s managing editor, Robert Dean, “We don’t apply a rule; we apply judgment.”

Some factors that come into consideration include “the severity of the crime, how high profile it is, and how close the suspect is to 18 years old.”

Kolb noted his own newspaper, the Gallup Herald, named two 16-year-old high school football players charged as juveniles for burglary and selling “$50 worth of marijuana,” respectively, because “crimes are crimes, and victims are left in the wake.”

As Kolb explained:

“It makes no difference to the homeowners whether an adult or a teen broke into their home. Their home will never be the same again. They have been violated. For parents who have to deal with a child hooked on drugs, it makes no difference the age of the person that supplied the habit. “

StinkyJournalism wrote to Kolb asking him if he supports naming both convicted juvenile offenders and suspected juvenile offenders.  Kolb told StinkyJournalism via e-mail yes, as long as articles about juveniles suspected or charged with a crime are qualified with standard language of “alleged.” Kolb wrote:

“I know this stand may have ruffled some feathers but I do believe that once an arrest with a formal charge entered is made the case can be reported as if it was an adult, stressing the alleged or charged suspect in the case.

“With this the presumption of innocence remains pending either an acquittal or conviction. As I said in the article, why should a juvenile offender escape the same public scrutiny as an adult who commits a crime? A crime is a crime so why have a double standard? There are still victims in either case and they don’t care how old the offender is. “

Kolb added his concerns over reporting on sex scandals in religion.

“An ethical issue that really needs addressing is the reporting of the sex scandals in the Catholic Church. The reporting of the names of priests who are either dead and defenseless or those who were never charged with a crime but were accused by someone for perpetrating an act decades ago is a true double standard in our profession and violates ethics.”


Advice from Student Press Law Center, Poynter, DART

Student Press Law Center features a discussion on its website on “identifying minors” in the media.  According to SPLC, a 1979 Supreme Court ruling “protects the right of journalists to use the names of minors in newsworthy stories as long as the information is “lawfully obtained” and “truthfully” reported.”

SPLC noted that there’s a “misconception that juvenile names are strictly ‘off-limits,'” but added that “there are valid reasons” for not naming minors even if it’s legal.

“For example, many news organizations do not, as a rule, publish the names of young people accused of less serious crimes. Children, the thinking goes, should not be stigmatized for the rest of their lives for an error in judgment they made while growing up.”

Poynter‘s Al Tompkins also noted in a 2002 article on juveniles and privacy that “juveniles deserve a special level of privacy protection, especially those in their pre-teen years, because of their vulnerability.”

Tompkins also included questions to think about before naming including “Who is served by identifying this juvenile?” And, if the juvenile has only been charged but not convicted, “how likely are the charges to stick and the juvenile to be prosecuted? If the juvenile is charged with a crime, will the juvenile be tried as an adult?”

The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma called for news outlets to have “thoughtful policies, whether written or unwritten, about naming child victims or teen crime suspects.”

The center, which is affiliated with Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism, suggested journalists “balance the public’s need to know and the importance of the information with the harm that can be done to a juvenile, especially since cyberspace has a permanence of its own.”

And, the center advised journalists don’t name a juvenile “just because your competitor is.”

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