College papers dropping arrestee names from crime blotters

Those arrested on the University of Connecticut campus this academic year may not feel lucky, but actually they are catching a break. Their arrests are being published in the student-run campus daily newspaper as has been typical for decades, but their names are not being made public.

In the fall of 2013, UCONN student editors ended — at least for this academic year — The Daily Campus’ long-standing practice of publishing names in its regular Police Blotter feature.  The change elicited some sharp questions from members of the paper’s board of directors, some head-shaking and exasperation from the journalism faculty and an apparent tweet by a former Daily Campus staffer who labeled the change as “lame.”

Emotional responses and resistance to change notwithstanding, UCONN’s student journalists are far from alone in considering whether to follow past practices when the Internet has bestowed immortality and eased access to all types of information.

The Miami Student, the paper of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, announced in October it, too, had eliminated names in its Police Beat column. UCONN Daily Campus Editor-in-Chief Kimberly Wilson said the student editors she met at an internship training session in 2013 told her they did not publish names in their college papers’ police logs. As a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern for Cox Media Group, Wilson said she also saw police blotters without names being published in several professional daily papers.

Diana Mitsu Klos, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Associated Collegiate Press, said the decisions made at UCONN and elsewhere are ones all student editors should think about. On one hand, the reality of dwindling resources at both student and professional news agencies is leading to less follow-up in arrest coverage. The days when many papers published the court disposition of every person arrested is long gone, for example. On the other hand, Internet search engines make it nearly impossible for people to hide past indiscretions. It is difficult to mesh this fact with the ethical principle of minimizing harm to students who are charged with possession of small amounts of marijuana or alcohol-induced disorderly conduct.

Wilson said she made the decision to remove the names of those arrested with the support of The Daily Campus news team and after much consideration about the ethics of the practice. In October, the paper printed this explanation:

“Why are there no names in the police blotter? The Daily Campus will not print names in the police blotter this year. This is because the police blotter is a tool to alert our readers of when and where crimes are occurring on campus, and it is not intended to incite gossip about individuals. The Daily Campus will still print articles with the names of those arrested for high-profile crimes.”

The explanation answered some basic questions about the student editors’ intent in changing the practice of publishing names. Yet in a manner typical of ethical dilemmas that often pit the basic journalistic principle of seeking the truth against the conflicting principle of minimizing harm, the explanation raised other questions. How will the editors define a high-profile crime? Why, as is evidenced by recent published articles, have they decided it is OK to publish a professor’s or student athlete’s name should they be arrested? Is the new practice fair to those whose names were published before the change was instituted or to others whose names might be published in the future should new student editors decide to reverse the policy, as Wilson said they might?

This year’s student editors at UCONN may draw one set of uneasy conclusions about how to handle police blotters, while their peers at other colleges and universities, along with professional editors, may use the same principles to arrive at different decisions.

“Not printing names seems like self-censorship,” said Lisa McGinley, assistant managing editor at The Day in New London, Conn. The Day’s editors use an established list of crimes the paper considers serious as a guide in deciding which arrestees’ names will be published.

“We’ve never had the conversation about the possibility of not using names,” McGinley said, while pointing out that conversations about other aspects of the logs, such as whether to publish an arrested person’s address, have been debated. “I’m not sure I’d be comfortable saying (to the public) that I know who was arrested, but I’m not going to tell you.”

At The Palm Beach Post in Florida, Breaking News Editor John Bisognano said names are regularly published in the Booking Blotter. On the paper’s website, mug shots also are published. Bisognano said a crime story or blotter item without a name could be viewed as too general and, therefore, not as reliable or believable.

Both editors noted their publications amend previously published blotters in their web archives if a person’s claim that his or her case was dismissed or charges reduced can be verified. The onus is on the arrested person to bring that fact to the editor’s attention.

This policy extends to other news organizations. Under a prominently sized row of mug shots on the Chattanooga Times Free Press Right2Know website is this information, printed in small type: “The people shown on this page have not been convicted of these crimes and should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. If charges are dismissed or reduced or the accused is found not guilty, people listed here can contact the Times Free Press at news@timesfreepress.com and provide us with documentation. Your name and mug shot then will be removed from this site in 3-5 business days.”

On American University’s School of Communications J-Lab website, editors’ comments about the ethical parameters of police reporting run the gamut. Publications’ practices vary widely — from not printing any names of arrestees even when detailed logs of police incidents and arrests are published, to removing entire blotters from Web archives after a specified period of time, to posting whatever information police provide.

The Daily Campus at UCONN in 2008 began removing police logs from Web archives 18 months after the item was published. Wilson said that practice was far from foolproof, however — another factor leading to the recent decision.

Wilson said student editors sometimes get calls from angry alumni who say their career goals are being crushed because their college arrests remain at the top of Google searches long after The Daily Campus said it removed the archive.

“It was uneven — whose arrest was being seen and whose was not,” Wilson said.

Technology also influences police reporting in other ways outside the control of newsrooms. Both the quantity of information and the method of release to the public vary widely among police departments. Technologically adept departments may publicly post records of all incidents and arrests. Some post mug shots on their own Web pages and many post information via Facebook or Twitter.

McGinley at The Day in Connecticut said while police reporters once were able to ferret out details of crimes and arrests that went well beyond the incident log, some departments have used social media to limit deeper communication with the press.

At the other end of the spectrum is a department within the circulation area of The Palm Beach Post that regularly makes a wealth of information, including crime scene photos, available for use by the press.

“Things are changing so fast with the Web. What is fair? We are always looking at and thinking about what’s fair, what’s news,” Bisognano said. He and his colleagues spend a good portion of each work day debating these issues in connection with numerous individual crime and arrest stories, he said.

Editors have for decades weighed and measured their responsibility to report the truth against the need to minimize harm to individuals. The huge volume of information available on the Web only accelerates the need for frequent discussion and debate on this issue in journalism classrooms as well as student-led and professional newsrooms.

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  • Tom Kearney

    Left out of this discussion is the reason that suspects’ names are in the public record. It is to ensure that people know a person has been taken into custody — a step that thus prevents a person from simply vanishing, as happened in England before the American Revolution. The Founders wanted to make sure that did not happen in the new nation. The suspect’s name is public because that actually protects the suspect.