A couple of weeks ago, I offered readers a challenge: You be the editor. Each Thursday, this column would present an ethical or policy decision about news coverage that an editor might have to make. Readers are invited to share how they would handle the dilemma.
The latest case, though, didn't garner any responses from readers. Perhaps it just wasn't very interesting or maybe it got lost on the page. Here's the dilemma the column presented:
Tombstones in a cemetery have been broken in half. A reward fund is established, and many community members want stiff punishment. Police question some teenagers, but there is not enough evidence to determine if any of them vandalized the tombstones. Still, police charge one teen with property damage as he was seen driving near the cemetery the night of the vandalism.
As the local newspaper's editor, do you:
A) Name the accused juvenile in the newspaper article
B) Not name the accused but report a person has been charged
C) Not name the accused but report as much information as you can about the accused, such the kind of car he drives
The dilemma is not unlike a situation The Daily Triplicate may very soon face. You may recall from last Saturday's issue a story by reporter Karen Wilkinson about vandalism and thefts at local schools. The odds are good that minors committed the crime - that's usually the case in school vandalisms and thefts. It's also very likely that eventually they will get caught. Nothing breeds criminal behavior better than success at it, and eventually beefed up security at the school or matching fingerprints when the kids get caught elsewhere will lead to a charge.
So let's suppose it's a couple of minors who broke into Crescent Elk Middle and Joe Hamilton Elementary schools. And let's suppose they've been charged.
How would you cover it?
As I'd prefer this column to be a discussion involving readers and as there were no responses, I'll keep it short this week.
Suffice it to say, the law will determine how most editors answer the question.
Usually states don't allow the names of those under 17 years old to be released when they are charged with a crime. The notion behind such laws is that kids aren't mature enough to make the right decisions and therefore deserve to start adulthood with a clean slate.
The exception is a significant felony, such as murder. That's why the names of youth who kill their classmates in school shootings appear on the news. In such cases, the youth usually is charged as an adult. While a kid may make a dumb mistake like throwing a rock through a window, he should know killing is morally wrong.
Should a 17-year-old have been charged with the vandalism, I'd report his name. A 17-year-old is smart enough to know that such destruction is wrong.
Of course, if the damage is significant enough to warrant adult charges - say arson that leads to death - then the kids' names ought to be printed even if they're younger.
After all, maturity often doesn't follow physical age. I've met 14-year-olds who have a sense of ethics and an understanding of the world that is more sophisticated than the average adult. And I've met 40-year-olds who think and behave like they're still in middle school. But both should know that certain actions - like taking money from a locked drawer - is morally wrong.
If they don't, the stories about their crimes are less about those whose names we list than an indictment of our society.
Reach Rob Bignell, The Daily Triplicate's editor, at: firstname.lastname@example.org .
The Next Dilemma
You receive an unsigned letter to the editor that details serious fraud in the local city budget. The newspaper has a policy of not printing anonymous letters. but the writer of this one says she will be fired from her job with the city if her name is published.
As the local newspaper's editor, do you:
A) Print the letter unsigned because the content is so precise and important
B) Not print the letter but pursue the issues outlined in the letter as a news story
C) Assume the content is a hoax and throw the letter in the trash
Let's hear your answers. Again, email them to email@example.com . Write andquot;You be the Editorandquot; in the subject line. Please note that time limitations prevent me from taking phone calls to discuss the case study. I'll print some of your thoughts next Thursday in this space.