Two teens in Utah plot to blow up a high school in January. An Ohio a teen opens fire on fellow students in a school cafeteria in late February, and three of them end up dying.
In those cases and virtually every other crime involving teenage suspects, reporters and editors ask one another: Should we name the accused?
And some Associated Press members with more liberal policies sometimes wonder whether they will be able to name the accused, because AP doesn’t always provide the name. In the Utah case, it named an 18-year-old charged in adult court but not his 16-year-old accomplice facing the same charge in juvenile court. In the Ohio case, the AP named the juvenile after his family’s attorney held a news conference and named him – about seven hours after Cleveland-area media named the suspect based on eyewitness accounts and confirmed by multiple sources.
The Associated Press generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes. Here is the policy: "Do not identify juveniles (under 18) who are accused of crimes, even if other news media do so or police release names. Also, do not transmit images that would reveal their identity. Do not identify, in text or through images, juveniles (under 18) who are witnesses to crimes. … Exceptions may be made in extraordinary cases only with the approval (of editors in New York). Issues that may weigh in a decision include the severity of the alleged crime; whether police have formally released the juvenile's name; and whether the juvenile has been formally charged as an adult. Other considerations might include public safety, such as when the youth is the subject of a manhunt; or widespread publication of the juvenile suspect's name, making the identity de facto public knowledge. In some situations, state or national laws may determine whether the person can be named.”
In an attempt to determine how closely AP’s policy reflects the policies of its members, the APME Sounding Board conducted a survey in February – between the time of the Utah incident and the shootings in northeastern Ohio.
"Dealing with identities of juveniles, sexual assault victims and other such sensitive matters are among the most difficult things we deal with,” said Tom Kent, standards editor for the AP. "We get calls almost daily from around the world on this topic. We have tried to expand our stylebook listing on this to cover as many circumstances as possible. But it’s often a judgment call, and we ask people to call us in New York to discuss it.”
He said the AP editors consider changes in policy as new issues arise.
"I don’t think we’ll ever have the policy completely nailed,” Kent said. It will continue to evolve, and we will continue to follow our own conscience and our members’ wishes.”
He said the survey results show that "members use widely different policies on this. About two-thirds say the policy as we outline it in our stylebook is acceptable to them. When you have a third saying it’s too strict or too lose, you have to think about it.
"If I had to predict where this will go in the next few years, I’d say it will likely go toward naming more people than less,” Kent said.
About 26 percent said that when AP does not provide the name of a charged juvenile, their news organization seeks the name by other means and inserts it into the AP story. "We pay significant money to the AP and it is very frustrating to have to go to the time and expense to re-report an AP story to get details like this,” one respondent said.
Kent said that those who currently are more liberal in their naming policies should be transparent in reporting them. If they add a name to an AP story that moved without the name, the member should say that the AP did not report the name, and why, and also say where the member obtained the name.
The survey respondents were primarily managing editors or editors, and they evenly represented all regions of the country. They also well represented the various sizes of news organizations, with about 59 percent from small markets, about 37 percent from mid-size markets and the rest from the largest markets.
The vast majority – almost 74 percent – said that they report names of only juveniles charged with felony-equivalent crimes, although some said they also use the names of juveniles charged in traffic offenses. And half of all respondents said such policies are consistent with the way they treat adults, who are named in stories about serious crimes (and traffic offenses).
One respondent said that violent criminals are increasingly young, "and the public deserves to know who they are.”
Another said that "the rights of the public to know about those who are perpetrating felonious crimes outweigh the juvenile's right to privacy. We are in the customer-service business. How are we serving our customers by withholding the identity of those who may potentially be a threat to them or their family as displayed through their actions?”
AP editors said that they are cautious about including names in some cases because AP stories are posted automatically on many news websites. That leaves no opportunity for member editors to intervene before the story becomes public on the Web. And they argue that leaving out the name but listing it atop the story in an editor’s note would result in differing published versions, making it difficult to provide updates that would cover all needs.
Several survey respondents said they judge each case on its merits and that top editors review each story involving a juvenile charged with a crime. Three said state laws prohibit authorities from releasing names of charged juveniles. One respondent noted that North Carolina law prohibits release of names of defendants under age 16 unless they are charged as adults. And juvenile court records are sealed in Minnesota, another said, noting that if a defendant is 16 or older and charged with a felony-level offense, the name is public.
Some said that AP should stick with its current policy, but that the AP should do more to explain why it is not using a name. Simply saying that AP is not naming a juvenile because he or she is a juvenile is not enough information.
About half said they’d like the name delivered by the AP in some fashion, either within the body of the story or in an attached editor’s note, so that members have the opportunity to add the name if they choose to do so.
"Because all copy can be edited, I believe providing the name for publications or broadcasters to use at their discretion may be the most acceptable solution,” said one respondent.
Another said, "I am a strong proponent of those names being public record and of each media outlet determining whether to publish on a case-by-case basis.”
And another supports "putting the name on top of the story and allowing individual members to make the call based on their policies and local and state laws makes sense. That would allow for uniformity within one publication.”
Others were adamant that names of juveniles "should only be used if the youth is charged as an adult.”
And one said that "if members want the name, let them obtain it.”
Commenting on the survey topic, Jan Leach, a journalism professor at Kent State University, an ethics fellow for the Poynter Institute and former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, said that news organizations sometimes go too far to protect teens.
"It’s complicated,” she said. "You’re doing a balancing act between those who needs to know the information and how important it is.”
She said journalists must consider the seriousness of crime, validity of information and what it will do for the story. "Does it advance the story, or does it just satisfy curiosity? Is the person missing? Are you clarifying who the person is and helping the community? Age is also a factor.
In the case of the school-cafeteria shootings in Chardon, east of Cleveland, the teen charged in the shootings is 17, which Leach said is old enough to name. The severity of the crime is another factor. It wasn’t an accident, she said, and not only were many people shot, three teenagers are dead.
"That’s a very serious crime. The seriousness of the crime is always a key factor for me,” Leach said.
She said there are "really good and ethically justifiable reasons for naming juveniles. I really hate that some readers think we do this just because we can.
"There are times when we do it because we can, but this is an information-saturated society, and if you don’t provide it, someone else will.
Leach said that reporters and editors should give some consideration to the permanency and viral nature of the digital age. But, she said, that’s probably the least of the problems for the teen charged in the Chardon case.
Thom Fladung, managing editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, said the decision to use the name of T.J. Lane in early reports on Cleveland.com even before he was charged was a pretty easy decision.
A reporter got the name from a fellow student who had grown up with the shooter and was so close to him in the cafeteria that he saw flames from the pistol barrel and was nicked in the ear from a bullet. And the reporter confirmed the name with "multiple people in a position to know” before using it.
Fladung said editors discussed the matter and asked the question: What is the compelling reason to keep this person’s name out of the paper or out of the online version?
Whether to name a juvenile should be done on a case-by-case basis, he said, but "my position is, tell me why we shouldn’t.”
There was no reason in this case, he said, and he has heard no complaints.
In lesser cases, he said, there is sometimes good reason to publish names to rule out others who could be seen as suspects in an information vacuum.
"We had a situation here in which a couple of members of a hockey team were suspended,” Fladung said. "We named them and took some flak for that, but if you don’t name them, you in effect have smeared everyone on the team.”
He said that the question that isn’t asked often enough in newsrooms is: If we’re not going to name the person, do we have a story? If you truly think you can’t name the person, a valid question to ask is whether it’s a worthy story.
"Clearly, I don’t like to not have names,” he said.
Alan D. Miller is managing editor / news for The Columbus Dispatch and chairman of the APME Sounding Board Committee.