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How Bay Area and national media made the call

Local television news is often held in low regard by newspaper journalists for lacking proper respect for journalism ethics. But it was the television stations and their Web sites that adopted the stricter ethical standard in deciding when to reveal the name of the suspect in the murder of Pamela Vitale.

During the day after the arrest of 16-year-old Scott Dyleski, no Bay Area television station's Web site identified the boy or showed his photo. At the national level, CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC/MSNBC also declined to identify the suspect.

But both the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times did identify Mr. Dyleski and showed his photo. The San Jose Mercury News ran on its Web site a story and photo from the Times, its sister paper.

That evening, ABC7, CBS5, NBC11 and KRON (Channel 4) declined to identify the suspect, even though they knew his name and used it to question his classmates at Accalanes High School. As the NBC11 reporter explained on the 6 p.m. newscast, "We're not telling you his name or showing you his picture because the district attorney has not filed charges in this case."

KTVU, Channel 2, also refrained from running the boy's name during the day on its Web site, but broke with its peers on the evening newscast, when the station both named the suspect and ran a photo of him.

The next morning, the Chronicle, Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune all published the name and ran photos of Mr. Dyleski. The Chronicle ran three school yearbook photos above the front-page fold, one from each of the past three years with the boy's appearance moving from smiling All-American boy, to purse-lipped adolescent, to stringy-haired defiant-looking "goth."

Grade the News e-mailed news executives in the eight local media we monitor routinely and asked each to explain why they had or had not used the name.

Only one broadcaster, Kevin Keeshan of KGO-TV (ABC7), responded:

In general, we don't use the name of a juvenile crime suspect. But we will use the name in this case if the sheriff's dept. releases the suspect's name and he is then also charged as an adult. While we believe that is likely to happen sometime in the next 24-hours, unless and until those two things happen we won't use the name. That's our policy. What the others do doesn't really come into play. We also will explain to our viewers why we aren't releasing the name at this time.

We had a thorough discussion in our afternoon editorial meeting about the fact that the name was already out there on several newspaper websites and radio stations and questioned whether us withholding the name would have any real effect on "minimizing the harm" to the juvenile suspect. While that point is debatable we agreed that we should be consistent with our policy and that there would be minimal harm on our end if we waited.

Mercury News Managing Editor David Satterfield wrote: "We don't know the suspect will be tried as an adult. But we know he was arrested on suspicion of murder. We talked it over and our policy says we can name if it's a horrific murder. We thought this qualified."

The Chronicle's Steve Proctor gave his paper's reasons for identifying the youth by name in the "pro" argument on the previous page.

The Contra Costa Times did not respond.

We also asked ethicist Bob Steele, at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based center for journalism education. He wrote:

Certainly, it would be appropriate to decline to name the juvenile suspect if you believed that the information you have is not accurate or at least not verifiable to a very high degree. That includes having at least two sources for this information in whom you have a very high level of confidence.

Also, I believe you could make a justifiable ethical argument to NOT name the juvenile suspect based on his age. You could use the time-honored position that juveniles deserve an added level of protection given their age. Assuming the facts are as you've outlined to me in this memo, I, personally, would not make that argument in this case. Once the arrest is made and verified by the law enforcement authorities, and once I have learned conclusively from multiple sources the identity of this juvenile, I believe you can make a justifiable argument to name the individual who has been arrested.

The Los Angeles Times noted that the Chronicle identified the suspect on its Web site, but the Times declined to do so.

Significantly, the Associated Press, which provides news items to all the media, decided not to repeat the name of the youth, even though some newspapers had done so on their Web sites. The AP report on the day of the arrest merely stated that two papers cited "law enforcement sources" saying that "The teenager lived near the huge hilltop estate," and provided details of the suspected motive.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that ABC7 divulged the name of the juvenile suspect the morning following the announcement of the arrest. The station that ran that report was KABC in Los Angeles, not KGO in San Francisco. Both stations go by the moniker ABC7.

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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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