When The Virginian-Pilot decided to update its newsroom policy handbook, staff writer Amy Jeter was tasked with authoring guidelines on naming juveniles in news stories. At her request, the
DISCUSS ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS WITH A SENIOR EDITOR
“The following guidelines are offered to answer questions that we often face in our coverage, particularly with criminal justice stories. These are not hard-and-fast rules and there will be exceptions: Do not name juveniles charged with crimes unless they are accused of capital murder or a crime so heinous as to warrant their identification. The last circumstance, of course, would require consultation with a senior editor.
"We routinely identify children, teens, etc. in photos from parades, festivals, etc. In instances where the identification could endanger the child that communication should be made clear to both a supervising editor and the photo editing staff. If a juvenile wants to go on the record about a crime -- as a victim or perpetrator -- they have that prerogative. Still, editors should carefully weigh the child's mental condition and check their own ethical antenna. Again, check with a senior editor. Do not name suspects before they’re charged. If you are on deadline and the suspect has been arrested in a case and you have a police report to that effect, the suspect could be named.
"Do not identify sexual assault victims, unless the victim(s) want to be identified and to tell their story. Editors should carefully weigh the victim’s state of mind and motivation and check their own ethical antenna. Again, check with a senior editor. Generally speaking, we do not publish stories based on information from unnamed sources. If an important story depends on confidential information, then you must have two or more sources and you must tell the reader why the sources are not being named.”
--Brett Thacker, managing editor, San Antonio Express-News
MINIMIZE HARM BY DECIDING CASE-BY-CASE
“Our unwritten policy on naming juveniles is to go on a case-by-case basis. We want to have a good reason if we use a juvenile's name just as we want to have a good reason for identifying a crime victim. In other words, we consider all the circumstances, but in addition to age, the thing we look at most is the seriousness of the crime. If it's a felony, we almost certainly will use the juvenile's name. We usually do so for aggravated or serious misdemeanors, but, again, it depends upon the circumstances surrounding the crime and whether authorities prosecute the crime in juvenile or adult court. When it comes to anonymous sources, we do everything possible to avoid using them. If we feel we can't tell an important story any other way, we do so, but the reporter must tell the editor the name of the source and how to contact the person.”
--Craig Brown, assistant city editor, Quad-City Times (
IS JUVENILE COURT OPEN?
“We only name the juvenile if the judge opens the juvenile court hearing to the public/press.”
--Laurie Mason, courts reporter,
FOLLOW STATE LAWS, WHERE YOU CAN
“We don't name juvenile offenders unless they are tried as adults. We don't have a written policy but go by state law on this. I favor naming juveniles in most other situations -- those who are crime or accident victims, for example, except in sexual abuse cases. State law is a bit ambiguous on naming juveniles who are not abuse victims; sometimes we get the names and sometimes we don't, but we always ask for them.”
--Hal Tarleton, editor, The Wilson (N.C.) Daily Times
DO PROSECUTORS HAVE A SOLID CASE?
“We recently had a case of a juvenile charged with a felony and as an adult for making a bomb threat. My feeling was the police were overreacting and even though they released his name, we did not identify him. We want to wait until the case is presented before deciding and find out the rationale for the prosecutors charging him as an adult. We did identify an 18-year-old also charged in the bomb threat incident because he was of age. We normally don't identify juveniles unless they are charged with a serious crime (murder, etc.) and in this case it seemed unnecessary.”
--John Staed, city editor, Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail
IS THE MINOR ACCUSED OF AN ADULT CRIME? OTHERWISE, CALL AN ADULT BEFORE NAMING A CHILD
“We follow what I think is a fairly standard practice of naming kids when they are involved in a newsworthy event, but not when they are accused of crimes (unless they are charged in adult court) or victims of sexual assault. However, our editors recently developed what I think may be a somewhat unusual policy that calls for reporters to contact a parent or guardian when we quote kids by name. I've had my own reservations about this policy, but so far it has not proven to be a big problem, and it does address some concerns that people have about dealing with kids who are not sophisticated interview subjects, or situations where the child is living with one parent who is trying to keep their location secret from another parent who's been abusive, etc.”
--Brandon Bailey, staff writer,
IS THE CASE HIGH-PROFILE?
“As a general rule, the Chronicle does not name juvenile suspects charged with crimes. However, exceptions are made. For example, a juvenile may be named in a case of extremely high public interest. We used the name of a juvenile who shot a student in a cafeteria full of dozens of her classmates and teachers because it seemed pointless to try to suppress it.
As far as granting anonymity to juveniles, no special rules apply. We do have guidelines to be used by reporters and editors in determining whether to grant anonymity to any source, which include considering whether there is reason to believe the information to be used is reliable, and the age and maturity of the source would be a factor in making that determination. The rule regarding naming of juvenile suspects is longstanding but unwritten.”
--Steve Jetton, assistant managing editor, The
WHAT SHOULD WE TELL THE READERS?
The Post Register of Idaho Falls, Idaho, offers readers an online statement on ethical decision-making, including its policy of “minimizing harm” when identifying juveniles.
FOR FURTHER READING:
Susan Brenna, The Children’s Beat magazine, Winter 2003
LynNell Hancock, CJR, July-August 1998
Al Tompkins, The Poynter Institute, 2000
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