Newsrooms must make tough decisions about when and how to identify juveniles involved in news stories.
Gut decisions to identify juveniles can cause unjustified harm. Strict policies against identifying juveniles can prevent the public from understanding important issues.
Yet juveniles deserve a special level of privacy protection, especially those in their pre-teen years, because of their vulnerability.
Journalists can find ways to tell stories involving juveniles that go beyond the daily news event to gather a deeper understanding of the context of a story. But they need to ask themselves some questions before deciding how to go about it.
Before deciding whether to identify a juvenile, journalists should consider:
Who is served by identifying this juvenile? Why does the public need to know the identity? What is the journalistic purpose in identifying the juvenile?
• Charge: If the juvenile is charged with a crime, how strong is the evidence? Have formal charges been filed? Is the juvenile only a suspect? 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?
What is the severity of the crime, the nature of the crime, how much harm was done in the process of the crime?
If you do not name the juvenile, who else could be implicated by rumor or confusion about who is charged?
What is this juvenile’s record? What is his/her history? How would shielding that juvenile’s identification and history expose the public to potential harm? What if you don’t name? What harm could occur?
What is the level of public knowledge? Is the juvenile’s identification widely known already? How public was the juvenile’s arrest, apprehension, or the incident that landed the juvenile in the public eye?
How does the juvenile’s family feel about identifying the young person? Has the family granted interviews or provided information to the media? Has the juvenile talked publicly?
Once a juvenile is identified, some damage is done to that person that can never be completely reversed. If charges against the juvenile are dropped or proven untrue, you may prevent further damage by no longer identifying the juvenile. The journalist should continuously evaluate the decision to name a juvenile, always testing the value of the information against the harm caused to the juvenile.
How does naming the juvenile allow the journalist to take the story into a deeper, more contextual level of reporting? What would identifying the juvenile allow the journalist to tell a reader/viewer/user that the audience could not understand otherwise? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the juvenile allows us to understand the circumstances of a crime or incident.
What is the tone and degree of your coverage? How often would the juvenile be identified? How big is the coverage? How will the juvenile be characterized in the coverage? What guidelines do you have about the use of the juvenile’s picture or name in follow-up stories or continuing coverage?
How immediate would the identification occur? Minutes, hours, days, or even years after an incident, identification would have different impacts on the juvenile.
What are the legal implications of your decisions? What laws apply about juvenile identification? What is the position of the presiding court?
How old is this juvenile? What is he/she capable of understanding about the situation he/she is involved in?
Who, besides the juvenile, will be impacted by your decision? Other juveniles? Parents? Families? Victims? Officials/investigators/courts?
In the absence of a parent or guardian, can the journalist find someone who can act in an unofficial capacity to raise concerns on the juvenile’s behalf so the juvenile’s interests do not get lost in the journalist’s quest to tell a story?
What alternatives have you considered to identifying the juvenile?
How will you explain your decision to identify this juvenile to the public, to your newsroom?