Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.

Make the call

Participate in our online straw poll below!

Should journalists always seek comment from the accused?

A lead story tells one side: the law's.

Suppose one day you're arrested and charged with a serious felony crime you didn't commit. The next day you pick up the paper or watch the evening news to find your name in a headline. The reporter was too busy to contact you, and might not have been able to find you in lockup anyway. Do you have grounds to feel mistreated by the press?

Two years ago, in an attempt to define "fairness" for the purposes of evaluating a sample of Bay Area TV and print news, Grade the News asked its board of advisers whether journalists had an obligation at least to attempt to contact people accused of crimes or other malfeasance before putting their names in the paper or on the air. The overwhelming response was: Yes, it's the fair thing to do, regardless of the strength of the evidence.

But the practice of real-life journalism doesn't always conform to the ideal, as the range of treatment of criminal suspects by the local press last week illustrates.

A story in Friday's papers (and on TV the night before) reported that eight people were charged with helping to create and sell fraudulent drivers' licenses through the Department of Motor Vehicles. The case will take months to prosecute, but there's no guarantee that any of them will be convicted. Some news organizations sought comment from the accused, and some did not, citing time pressures resulting from the need to write two or three other stories that day.

Now suppose you ran a major Bay Area newsroom. You make the call: Would you have delayed other tasks to make sure you could get in touch with every suspect? Would you have deleted the names of those you didn't have time to contact? Or would you have run with what you had, knowing you'd be able to follow up on the story?

To help you with your decision, we've compiled two opposing arguments based on our research. When you're ready, cast your vote in our unscientific poll and leave your comments below.

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Pro: Seeking comment from those accused of crime protects the innocent

Journalists are in the business of telling the truth as best they can determine it, not merely disseminating the facts presented by those in power. Sometimes the police and other government investigatory bodies wrongly accuse people of crimes or malfeasance, and it's the responsibility of the press to be fair to all parties, no matter how guilty they look in an indictment. (According to the California Judicial Council, 23% of felony cases in 2003-2004 ended in acquittal, dismissal or transfer to another jurisdiction.)

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls on editors and reporters to "Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing." The code, as a declaration of SPJ's "principles and standards of practice," makes no exceptions for those who are hard to reach because they are under arrest, those who will have a chance to speak at an official hearing at a later date, or those who appear to have a mountain of evidence lodged against them.

If law enforcement is sometimes in error, then the press, by repeating charges against individuals, is amplifying the error. Journalistic due diligence requires each person accused by name to be contacted and given an opportunity to refute the charges. If suspects are in jail and thus unavailable for comment, often their lawyers, family members, friends or business colleagues can speak in their defense and ameliorate the harm to their reputations.

Lack of resources, staffing, space on the printed page or time in a newscast are all poor excuses. If your newsroom doesn't have the time to do a thorough job on a crime story it should withhold the names of the accused until it can try to get the other side of the story.

If the accused or a spokesperson cannot be reached on deadline, saying so in print will allay concerns on the part of the public that the press is serving as a mouthpiece for the police or prosecutors at the expense of innocent (or not-quite-so-guilty) suspects.

Allowing only suspects with the resources to contact the paper, usually through a lawyer, to defend themselves is likely to introduce a class bias against the poor.

Con: Trying to track down every suspect on deadline would paralyze newsrooms

In an ideal world, a reporter would have the time to interview every suspect accused of a crime -- and the police wouldn't do anything to get in the way.

In reality, newsrooms are faced with myriad obstacles, not least of which is that suspects are often in lockup or being booked on charges and can't be contacted before the TV news goes on air or the newspaper goes to press. In fact, calling to ask for the responses of people in police custody is often futile.

Even without seeking comment, printing suspects' names and recording the fact of their arrests is itself a check on the power of police. Otherwise, the police might feel emboldened to abuse their power by taking people into custody beyond the watchful eye of the public.

At a time when corporations are tightening newsroom budgets, journalists are increasingly pressed for time. The reporter for the Alameda Newspaper Group who wrote the story about the eight people accused in defrauding the Department of Motor Vehicles was so busy that he filed two other stories that same day, which took him out of the office on two occasions. And he was tasked with filing multiple versions of the same story: The same article focused on different suspects in the lead sentence in the Oakland Tribune and the San Mateo County Times. Working on multiple stories a day is also common for television reporters, who have even fewer words in which to tell their stories.

This is the way newsrooms really operate. Police reports -- "cop blotter," as they're called -- are regularly published in papers and include the names of suspects. Tracking down each one would be prohibitively time-intensive.

More important than getting comment from the accused on the first day is following the case through the legal system. "If you write a brief about someone accused of armed robbery," Mike Oliver, regional editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group wrote, "then you're obligated to write at least a brief later of that case's disposition -- whether the accused was convicted or acquitted."

 

Ready to make the call?

Vote below. If you're still unsure what you would decide, consult the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.

After you've voted, check out how some Bay Area newsrooms actually handled the case.

 

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

WEEKLY UPDATES

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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