We take care in revealing suspects in coverage

karen.peterson@thenewstribune.comMarch 17, 2013 

A News Tribune photographer rushes to a crime scene. The assignment: Show readers what it looks like. The house where it happened. The police rushing in. The neighbors watching from afar.

Shoot quickly. Post online. Help decide which photos run in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Sometimes the photographer – or a reporter with a camera – is on scene when police make an arrest and walk a suspect to a patrol car. That’s part of the crime scene, too, and it generally happens in public.

We had a good conversation last week in the newsroom about whether and when to publish photos of people arrested, but not yet charged with a crime.

The TNT newsroom already has a guideline for when we name suspects. Generally, it’s after they’ve been charged. More broadly, it’s after they’ve been through one level of adjudication.

After all, people can be – and sometimes are – wrongly accused. We want to reduce the chances we’ll unnecessarily sully the reputation of a person subsequently released without charges.

When a prosecutor charges someone or a judge holds a person and sets bail, they have reason to believe the person might have committed a crime. At that point, we publish the suspect’s name.

We also break our own rule from time to time.

When a case is high profile, when a person has confessed to a crime, when police are looking for a dangerous suspect, we sometimes name a person not yet charged. It’s a decision made only after a discussion among editors.

On Thursday, for instance, we named Tony Barrett after he called a Seattle TV station to say he’d killed his wife and then led police on chase that resulted in his arrest. He has not yet been charged.

Once named, we inherit a responsibility to follow that person’s case to resolution. Particularly if they’re later found not guilty, we try to run stories in the same general place as the original stories that accused them. Editors look back at the original story placement and advise the managing editor that a follow-up needs to go on the front page or South Sound page, for instance.

Given how careful we are about when to name crime suspects, the conversation went last week, shouldn’t we be as careful about when to photograph them? Or is what we see at a public crime scene fair game for publication? Do readers expect us to provide that view of the news?

Does it make a difference if we run a photo but don’t name the person? Should we have a different standard for online than for print? Television stations do this all the time; should that influence our standard?

This obviously is not a new dilemma for us, but we find ourselves asking the question more frequently. Advances in technology allow us to have more people on scene able to shoot pictures. And our digital readers expect to see them immediately.

TNT photographers have camera attachments that can send photos as they shoot. Sixteen reporters have new iPods that take high-quality pictures and video. Wi-Fi capability allows them to post directly online. We have a new corps of interns from Pacific Lutheran University roving the South Sound to capture stories and visuals for our website and mobile apps.

TNT photo editor Joe Barrentine asked for guidance last week so he can advise our journalists what to shoot and post.

Here’s where we landed: Identifying suspects in photos is the same as identifying them in words. In general, we won’t do that unless they are charged. The same standard applies online as in print. We’ll set our own standards regardless of what other media do.

TNT journalists should shoot everything they see, including photos of suspects. We can decide later what to publish, but we can never go back and recreate a scene.

They should post visuals online immediately, except those of unnamed suspects (or of victims, which also can be questionable). Posting the latter requires a conversation with editors.

We can never create a steadfast rule to address every situation. Our decisions are admittedly subjective and evolve over time. No agency polices us.

But we think it’s worth thinking through the journalism ethics of what we do. Our goal remains to share as much information with readers as possible while also respecting the people we write about. And the people we photograph.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434 karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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