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Should the news media reveal the name of a juvenile murder suspect before the police have charged him?

The photographic presentation of 16-year-old Scott Dyleski's apparent transformation from angelic youth to "Goth" on the front page of the Chronicle raised objections from readers, wrote Dick Rogers, the paper's reader representative.

On the evening of Oct. 19, the Conta Costa County Sheriff's department arrested a 16-year-old neighbor in connection with the brutal murder of Pamela Vitale, the wife of celebrated defense attorney Daniel Horowitz. In a press conference the following day, sheriff's spokesman Jimmy Lee refused to give the youth's name. Reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle and Knight Ridder, which owns the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times, discovered the youth's name from unnamed sources. They rushed that afternoon to put the name up on the Internet, as well as other details about the youth's possible motives.

News organizations and journalism groups mostly urge caution in identifying juvenile suspects of crime -- and in this case, many editors, including Bay Area television news directors, refrained from giving the name until the suspect was charged with a crime the next day.

Now suppose you ran a major Bay Area newsroom. You make the call: Would you have told the world the name of a yet-to-be-charged juvenile murder suspect if the Sheriff was unwilling to identify him? Or would you not consider it worth the risk to the youth's reputation to beat officials to the punch?

To help you with your decision, we've compiled two opposing arguments: On the left is a response from a Chronicle editor, on the right is an argument we've compiled 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: In particularly heinous crimes, scrutiny trumps privacy for juveniles

By Stephen Proctor, deputy managing editor for News, San Francisco Chronicle

The decision to publicly identify a juvenile charged in a criminal case is not one any newspaper takes lightly. Most major newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have a policy of withholding the names of juveniles charged with crimes because editors believe that people who haven't reached the age of maturity deserve a chance to keep private mistakes made in their youth.

There are, however, exceptions — namely when a crime is so heinous that the juvenile is charged as an adult. The brutal slaying of Pamela Vitale is a classic example of such a case.

The suspect arrested in that slaying was 16-year-old Scott Dyleski, of Lafayette in Contra Costa County, California.

News that an arrest had been made broke on the morning of Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005, six days after Vitale had been found slain by her husband, prominent defense attorney and television commentator Daniel Horowitz. Police did not name the suspect or release any details about the crime.

However, in the course of its reporting, the Chronicle learned a number of key details about the slaying from two knowledgeable sources, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because law enforcement officials were not publicly releasing information about the case.

These details included the name of the suspect and specific information about the allegations against him, including that investigators believed the crime was the result of a scheme to use fraudulent credit card numbers to finance a pot-growing operation, that Vitale had been struck 39 times with a piece of crown molding and that a gothic symbol had been carved into her back.

One of these sources, a person whose reliability our reporter considered ironclad, also told the Chronicle that Dyleski would be charged as an adult. That was not at all surprising, given the circumstances of the crime, Dyleski's age (he was nearing his 17th birthday), and the increasing trend nationwide to charge juveniles as adults when they are arrested for serious crimes.

In the past decade, states across the nation have passed laws making it easier to charge juveniles as adults, and many have lowered the age limit for certain crimes so that juveniles charged in these cases are automatically tried in the adult system. The Juvenile Law Center in Pennsylvania estimates that 200,000 people under the age of 18 are tried as adults every year.

For editors at the Chronicle, the question became simply whether the suspect should be named in the stories then being reported live on the newspaper's Web site, SFGate.com, and in the next day's newspaper, or whether Dyleski's name should be withheld until formal charges were filed. We decided to name the suspect because of the information from our source about the virtual certainty that he would be charged as an adult, as indeed he was the next day.

Doing so allowed the newspaper to begin answering immediately the questions on every reader's mind in the wake of the arrest. Who was the person charged in this crime? What personal circumstances in his life might have contributed to his involvement? What did those who know the suspect have to say about him that might paint a fuller picture of him?

The Vitale slaying had been among the most dominant story in the news, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country, for days leading up to the arrest. Given the information the newspaper had, and the circumstances of the crime, the Chronicle decided that the right thing to do was to give readers all the information it could gather on this major story as quickly and accurately as possible.

Con: Identify juveniles before they are charged only if the public needs to know

The default in journalism is always to publish as much as you reliably know. But sometimes journalism ethics dictate restraint. The ethical injunction in the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics is "Minimize harm."

In this case, the appropriate choice was to withhold the teenager's name until police were confident enough of his guilt to charge him with murder. Premature identification of the suspect could have done much harm with little public benefit. In fact, the only benefit was commercial -- breaking sensational news in a celebrity murder.

Before police have filed charges, while the investigation continues, media risk great harm to the reputation of suspects by revealing their names. This is particularly true for juveniles who may not be as able as adults to deal with negative publicity. For this reason, the SPJ code advises reporters to "be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects."

Even elite police forces, such as the FBI, can arrest suspects whom they later decide are innocent. Richard Jewell, the man federal agents identified as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing is a case in point. The SPJ code warns journalists to "be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges."

In the Vitale murder, police apparently were uncertain enough that they withheld the youth's name. The day after the arrest, Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department spokesman Jimmy Lee said, "We cannot and will not identify him. Although we have a suspect, the investigation is still going on. Much more work still needs to be done. ... We are still interviewing people. Our crime lab is hard at work. We're analyzing evidence and waiting for test results to come back."

There would have been little loss of information the public needed to know if journalists waited a day for the police to make the official announcement of charges. What public good came from naming the young man? Does probing the personality of a troubled teen, who may or may not have committed a crime, affect more than a few people directly? Does it save any lives in the community? Does it make people feel safer? No.

The rationale that news organizations can identify a juvenile suspect if the crime is particularly heinous doesn't address the issue of minimizing harm. If anything, the gruesomeness of the slaying increased the damage to the suspect's reputation. It made it more important for news media to exercise caution.

The Chronicle let its zeal for a scoop blind it. Its own ethics policy states: "In general, we do not name juvenile suspects (under the age of 18) in crime stories. ... It is acceptable to name a juvenile who is being tried as an adult, but the Managing Editor should be consulted before doing so."

But the suspect in this case had not been charged at the time the papers ran the story. That they had reason to believe that would happen and that he would be charged as an adult, doesn't change the fact that they jumped the gun.

It's also a specious argument to suggest that this boy's name was newsworthy because of the national trend toward charging more juveniles as adults. A widespread move to treat young people more strictly does not eliminate the ethical requirement to avoid unnecessary harm to their reputations. If news media want to do justice to that trend, they can write about it with or without the sensational news peg -- and certainly without disseminating the name of a potentially innocent young person.

The only winners when juvenile suspects are named before they are charged are the owners of news media. They reap the commercial benefits of a sensational scoop. In the longer term, however, even they may lose. Their willingness to risk the reputation of a young man for profit may contribute to the erosion of public trust in their news organizations.

 

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 and national newsrooms actually handled the case.

 

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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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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