On Monday afternoon, Minneapolis police arrested 22-year-old Tyeric Lamar Lessley in the death of a man who’d been shot downtown early that morning. By Monday night, KSTP-Channel 5 had published Lessley’s name. In Tuesday’s paper, the Star Tribune didn’t.
That’s because Lessley hadn’t been charged; for at least a decade, the Strib has resisted naming such suspects. An arrest can ruin a reputation, but charges don’t always follow, so the Strib typically waits for a formal accusation.
But here’s a twist: The Strib did print Lessley’s name — on buzz.mn, which it brands “Star Tribune Communities.” There, a user named “mplscrimewatch” posted the complete Minneapolis police media release — with the identity that newsroom professionals had redacted.
The web’s rampaging information flow is just one reason the Strib is reassessing its policy — and it’s not the only local media organization doing so. News director Scott Libin is reorienting guidelines at WCCO-Channel 4, which has had a similarly high disclosure wall. His station reported Lessley’s name that same day as Channel 5, which for years has run arrestees’ names.
Competition plays a part; at the Strib’s print rival, “we name names,” says Pioneer Press public-safety team leader Hal Davis. Libin once led Channel 5; he says Channel 4 is not bending to its competition, but to a competing philosophy: “We now start from the premise that reporting truths is our primary obligation, and that we withhold such information only for a good reason.”
There are some qualms in Libin’s newsroom. Veteran Channel 4 cops reporter Caroline Lowe says she’s open to her boss’s argument but, “My concern is you can never give back a reputation if the person is never charged. How can we minimize the harm?”
Lowe, who celebrates 31 years on the police beat Saturday, says one case hangs with her as she ponders the brave new world. A few years back, a woman accused a man of raping her in a Mall of America parking ramp. He was arrested and held in jail for two days, but never charged. As it turned out, the woman had a history of making false claims — and was charged with such a crime in a subsequent case.
Somehow, the media didn’t know about the accusation of rape — at the Mall of America! — but Lowe became acquainted with the man when she did a story on his ordeal (with his cooperation). “I’m grateful we didn’t know about [the case] at the time,” Lowe says, since his name could well have been publicized. “It was juicy case — a Mall of America parking ramp rape.”
And in fact, even stricter media policies have long had exceptions. Assistant Managing Editor Paul Klauda, who heads up the Strib’s review, says his paper’s protocol allows four basic exceptions: when there’s no doubt who committed the act, when the suspect puts himself or herself in the limelight, when the suspect is a public figure, and perhaps the most gaping of all, when the case has high public interest. Call that last one the “juicy” exception.
Lessley’s case was apparently not juicy enough, and the Strib has been circumspect in higher-profile murders. Last October, the paper may have been the last organization to name Michael John Anderson, the alleged “Craigslist killer.” The 19-year-old’s name hit the media within 24 hours of the crime, but the Strib first printed it two days later. “We were twisting ourselves into a pretzel in front of our readers,” Klauda says. “If that didn’t meet the high-profile test, what does?”
Klauda acknowledges the policy’s imprecision is one reason a Strib working group is attempting a redefinition. It was about that time he noted bloggers under the Strib’s umbrella linking to the newspaper’s circumscribed stories and adding names themselves. (Like many papers, the Strib doesn’t pre-review third-party postings.) “Our policy is written to be pretty print-centric,” Klauda observes.
Are professional ethics being delegated to the mob? Libin insists a looser policy can have moral grounding: “The Society of Professional Journalists says [our] primary obligation is to seek the truth and report it as fully as possible. Not seek the truth and hold it. Second is journalistic independence, and the third is minimizing harm — but that’s third. To me, that means we don’t need a good reason to report what’s true, but a good reason not to.”
On some level, Lowe sounds like someone trying to build a containment vessel around a potentially radioactive change. She says — perhaps optimistically — that reporters must work harder to contextualize legal procedures, emphasizing the difference between an arrest and a charge, and delving into the nuance of probable cause and pending investigations: “If we’re reporting the name, we have to do this so we don’t leave a cloud.”
Lowe says — and Libin agrees — that follow-up is mandatory. If the station reports someone’s arrest, it must also report if charges are never filed or dropped. “How’s that going to work?” Lowe wonders. “We lead the news with the arrest, are we going to lead the news with charges dropped?”
At the PiPress, Davis says his paper doubles back, reporting releases when an uncharged arrestee is released. On TV, the broadcast window is much tighter.
The question is whether such case-tracking can be effectively institutionalized: Journalists, being human, get a lot more excited about something active (arrest made!) then something passive (charges filed?). In journalism’s faster-paced, high-turnover world, it’s easy to see names falling through the cracks. Should that happen, the uncharged accused will likely be disproportionately the least powerful in the community, since they are most often arrested.
Paul Hannah, the PiPress newsroom’s longtime lawyer, notes that the charging standard’s deference to official, documented sources has its own problems. “I can’t tell you the last time there was a cop arrested for DWI that we got his name the day of the arrest — what a coincidence!” Hannah says. “I’ll bet over the course of my career I’ve made 50 phone calls about this.”
Other media’s naming policies
Most newsrooms have formal procedures about naming arrestees. The Associated Press won’t name until charges are filed, except for high-profile cases involving public figures. Minnesota Public Radio’s policy seems to mirror where Channel 4 is going:
“In cases where law enforcement officials arrest or otherwise detain an individual without charging that person with a crime, MPR News may name such individuals in its reports. It will be up to the news director or editor(s) overseeing the story to determine whether the situation warrants naming the suspect. Editors should consider whether MPR’s naming of an uncharged suspect will do irreparable harm to the suspect’s reputation if authorities decide not to charge and whether the public’s right to be informed is worth taking that risk.
“In cases where a decision to name an uncharged suspect is made it is incumbent on MPR News to provide as much context as possible to let the audience determine whether an arrest was justified. Such context must include the fact that charges have not been filed, an explanation of why not, and how long the law enforcement agency can legally detain the suspect. And like any story, MPR News will make every effort to contact principals in the story. Stories should also include any information about evidence implicating the suspect or any other information that will allow the audience [to] evaluate the validity of an arrest. And finally, if MPR News produces a story about a suspect’s detention or arrest without charges, it is committed to giving similar coverage in the event the suspect is released.
“This policy does not obligate MPR News to name uncharged suspects. Be especially cautious about identifying juvenile suspects.”