What’s In A Name?

November 26, 2008

It’s a story that no news editor can resist.

Two Iowans were caught having sex in a Metrodome restroom on Saturday as an intoxicated crowd egged them on and –gasp! — as their significant others stayed in the stands to watch football.  At least, those were the accusations, according to newspaper reports.  Name a better story in the last week!

Speaking of names …

The Star Tribune’s version of the story identified by name the Iowans who had been charged — but not convicted — of a misdemeanor.  The Pioneer Press’ story did not.  Funny, during my earlier years at the Pioneer Press, it was the other way around.  It was our newspaper that had a policy of publishing arrestees’ names, except when we didn’t.  And it was the newspaper across the river that had a policy of not publishing arrestees’ names, except when they did.

Mainstream Media always has struggled with this issue and has never been consistent.  The law is clear:  As long as a newspaper, TV station, or blog for that matter obtains information lawfully, it may publish it.  But should they?  And should there be policies — consistently followed policies — that guide whether to identify people who are arrested but who have not yet been convicted of a crime?

The problem is, even with a rule, there is always an exception.  For example, if a newspaper has credible information that identifying an arrested person in print would put someone’s life in danger, obviously the newspaper will not publish it.  Conversely, if, oh, I don’t know, an Idaho senator is charged but not yet convicted of a crime, obviously a newspaper will publish the name.  And it should.

There is no easy solution, but all media can help address this problem by making it absolutely clear in crime stories what it means to be charged with a crime (i.e., “indicted”) and what it means to be convicted of a crime (i.e., found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt).  And then, in an ideal world, reporters and editors should follow up on stories when an arrested person is exonerated.

For what it’s worth, the Metrodome story is now “moving on the wires” — in other words, is being distributed by the Associated Press.  The Des Moines Register, for one, published that version of the story, which has elicited nearly 100 reader comments.

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