Update from the Complaints Desk: To name or not to name?

For decades, publishing the names of people accused of committing crimes has been a regular part of daily public interest journalism. But just as the digital world has ushered in new ways of thinking about ethical decision-making, the long life of online news has posed important questions about how journalism’s ethical standards can evolve. In this vein, news organizations are increasingly giving careful consideration to ‘naming names’ in minor crime coverage.

The National NewsMedia Council (NNC) has been contacted over the years by members of the public concerned that news stories published on the internet breathe ‘second’ and ‘third’ lives into past accusations. Sometimes, we’ve heard from individuals unable to find employment because a hiring manager has typed their name into a search engine, only to be alerted to past allegations of minor charges that were never tested in court or resulted in acquittals years later.

What is becoming increasingly clear is news organizations are carefully beginning to consider additional factors when deciding to publish the name of someone accused with a minor crime or indiscretion. For example, are particular communities disproportionately impacted when a news report is published about a minor crime? To what degree should information provided by law enforcement be subjected to enhanced scrutiny?

Given these proverbial shifting sands, newsrooms and journalism organizations, including the NNC and Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) Ethics Advisory Committee, have been examining the matter. In a discussion paper published last summer, the NNC compiled a series of best practices to assist Canadian editors on this ever-evolving issue. 

The debate about including names of the accused was recently the subject of a complaint mediated by the NNC against a community news outlet in Northern Ontario. The news story was an 18-month old brief about a middle-aged woman being charged by Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) on an accusation of assault. 

The complainant, who was the son of the accused, requested that the news organization remove the brief on two grounds. First, the charges against his mother had subsequently received a judicial stay. The second was to help alleviate his mother’s severe stress, anxiety, and depression, which he said was caused by the fact that the piece, containing her name, remained publicly available. 

The news organization, which included an update to the original article indicating the stayed charges, explained to the complainant that all content, whether in print or online, is a matter of public record. They stated a newsroom committee composed of nine individuals, which included a mix of editors and court and crime reporters, would consider the complainant’s request to remove his mother’s name completely. The news organization’s development and use of a committee to assess complaints of this nature is an approach supported by the NNC.

After deliberation, that request was unanimously denied because there was no inaccuracy in the original reporting. The news organization did offer the complainant an opportunity to write a letter to the editor to express their frustration or an opportunity to speak with a reporter to follow-up on the story. The complainant rejected this offer. 

Instead, he proceeded to provide the NNC and the news organization with a letter from the local OPP detachment. The letter stated that due to the charges being stayed, all fingerprints and photographs of the accused had been deleted from their database. The complainant argued that because the police had destroyed all evidence related to the accusations made the news organization should follow suit. The NNC explained to the complainant that simply because records or data has been deleted by law enforcement bodies does not compel news organizations to do the same, as this would be in violation of press freedom. 

In subsequent correspondence, the complainant reiterated how the inclusion of his mother’s name impacted her quality of life in a small community. The news organization indicated it would be open to reviewing its earlier decision. The complainant’s mother provided the review committee with a written statement about the impact the story had on her mental health.  

After additional consideration and review, the news organization agreed to remove the name of the accused on compassionate grounds. As such, the NNC determined the complaint was resolved due to corrective action. 

The details and exchanges of information in this complaint provided an insightful window into the challenges of reporting the names of individuals accused of minor crimes. While the NNC would emphasize that this was a single complaint, it does serve as a helpful case study that editors in news organizations across Canada should carefully consider, particularly in a world where news is increasingly disseminated digitally.