Covering Crime

As always, the RTDNA is wedded to the principles of journalism including fairness, transparency, and fact-based reporting. We recognize that crime stories can be complex and benefit from multiple angles and sources. While police sources are an important resource in covering crime, we recommend they not be the only sources used. While we respect the view of law enforcement, news organizations must do their best to find additional sources to give consumers a full understanding of the stories we cover.

In all of our crime reporting it is important to consider ways to minimize harm, particularly to vulnerable communities. The right to broadcast, publish or post information does not mean it is always right to do so. For these and other reasons, we recommend robust newsroom discussions on the following topics.

The Use of Mugshots and Police Released Video

We recommend newsrooms reevaluate the frequent use of mugshots, due to the potential societal and individual harm caused by their use. Assemble a diverse group in the newsroom to answer these questions and create a policy and process that informs editorial decisions about whether to run the mugshot.

We recommend the following considerations when considering using mugshots:

Is this a case you intend to cover all the way through the end of the criminal case?

Are police telling us the person is a danger to society or themselves and is there an active search?

Are police telling us the person may have harmed more victims and they need those victims to come forward?

Is the person a public official civilian or a public figure, or an otherwise non-public individual?

If you choose to use the mugshot, is it directly related to the current alleged crime that is the subject of your story? If not, have you tried to get a different picture that is a more accurate depiction?

Communicate the decision to the newsroom including the reasons for or against. It can be valuable to log these decisions and review to see whether you are being consistent in your editorial process.

The Use of "Suspect" or "Person of Interest" Descriptions

We recommend your newsroom have a policy about the use of suspect descriptions in news stories. Further, we recommend you have a policy regarding the naming of a suspect before any formal charges are filed.

When using descriptions of suspects or “persons of interest,” we recommend newsrooms ask, are the descriptions provided specific enough to serve the intended purpose to alert the public to potential danger or help authorities locate someone missing or wanted?

Vague descriptions are not helpful, and in fact they can be harmful. Race and gender are not enough. News organizations that who use only race and gender can help perpetuate false and harmful stereotypes. We recommend newsrooms be as specific as possible in using descriptions of “suspects'' or “person of interest” stories.

We recommend developing a policy for including a number of identifying characteristics such as; tattoos, piercings, eye color, height, weight, clothing, hair, particular physical characteristics such as a limp or scar, along with race and gender.

We also recommend being specific about why authorities are looking for this person.

Is the public in any danger, or is the person of interest in danger of being harmed? Are you using the best information you have in a thoughtful way?

Non-Violent Crime Reporting (Use of Suspect Names, Coverage of Non-Public Figures)

We recommend your newsroom have a policy regarding the use of a suspect’s name before any charges are filed.

Technology has given us the age of instant and forever information, which is important to remember as we report on crime, especially lower level or “novelty” crimes. It is important for newsrooms to consider the news value in naming the accused, because the information that is published is permanent. That virtual paper trail could last decades and impact lives forever. We recommend the following considerations:

How will reporting names, and publishing photos, better inform your community?

Is there a different standard for public officials and public figures?

What is your standard for reporting on juvenile suspects?

Will your reporting of names and likenesses damage legitimately an ongoing investigation?

We recommend your newsroom be prepared to follow up on these crimes through adjudication and update the story, especially if charges are dismissed.

Considerations for Policies to Update Digital Crime Stories

We recommend newsrooms have a policy for removing or updating archived digital versions of digital stories. We believe that it makes sense for newsrooms to have a diverse committee that can rule on official requests with certain specific criteria for making those decisions. We recommend you consider updating or removing archived digital versions of stories when requested in the following circumstances;

If the case is expunged.

If charges are dropped or withdrawn.

If the age of the case and mitigating conditions have created a changed environment for the victim and/or accused.

Many newsrooms already have a review process in place, which can include a committee of editors who review requests made to the station/site by individuals for regular review, some of which happen monthly. The committee could vote on each request and determine if the story needs to be removed entirely, deindexed, or should remain with an update.

We recommend you seek the advice and approval of your company’s legal counsel in both setting up the criteria and process for ruling on these requests. Many sites require the person making the request have a proof of expungement from the court and do not entertain requests on ‘merit’ short of expungement.

A newsroom may determine elected officials, public officials and public figures do not qualify for full name removal or story deletion. Other instances where a story should possibly be kept include violent crime, crimes which threatened public safety, corruption and sex abuse.

Newsrooms should determine whether there is a time frame after which the stories qualify and if the request can come from someone other than the subject of the story. In some cases, a family member may request a story be deleted after the story subject has died, for example, but there are many paid ‘reputation repair’ services, from which a site may wish to ignore. Some stations have come to the conclusion that allowing such hired services to make the removal requests creates a system which favors those with wealth versus those who can’t afford to hire such a service.