Why We Need a Code of Ethics in U.S. Crime Reporting

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Tabloids cover mass shootings. Photo by scleroplex via Flickr

In 2017, several prominent national news outlets published a letter from  Kenneth Williams, an Arkansas man who was then awaiting execution.

In the letter, Williams mused about the meaning of life and death, remorse and atonement. The writing is overwrought, akin to that of a precocious teenager; it is hard to imagine Williams, who was considered to have severe mental disability, writing the line, “Talk about the lamb being sized up before the slaughter.”

Several retired death penalty defense lawyers could not imagine it either. In a private conversation, they told me with exasperation that they did not believe Williams wrote the letter, and they believed it was likely a well-meaning but catastrophic attempt by his defense attorney to humanize him.

Williams’ entire claim for last-minute respite was that he was too intellectually disabled to be executed under American law, they pointed out. The Supreme Court denied the motion for a stay of execution.  The justices gave no reason, but it is not farfetched to imagine the Attorney General of Arkansas offering the widely published letter into the evidentiary record.

Kenneth Williams was executed on April 28, 2017.

If those retired death penalty lawyers were right, it is also hard to imagine social sanctions against the publishers, despite Williams’ case being a life-or-death matter. That’s because people accused of much less serious crimes get immolated by the American press every hour of every day.

Mentally ill and marginalized citizens have often been exploited by the press, only to become cruel internet jokes. The so-called “Florida Man,” a meme that went viral last year, is one example. Even people thought of as victims, like a sex worker who became globally known as the “one-eyed zombie prostitute,” have been tortured by crass journalists.

A 2012 study  concluded that tabloid crime stories, which often simplify and sensationalize criminal activity, shape public support for tough-on-crime approaches.

At least one newspaper has decided to buck the trend. Last June, Florida Today decided to drop videos of shootings it carried on its website, as well as scrap its traditional gallery of mug shots. Executive Editor Bob Gabordi said the mug shot decision was taken to “add more fairness.”

He continued:

We get phone calls and messages nearly every day from people who have appeared in the mugshot gallery whose cases were subsequently dropped even before reaching court. Others go through the process to have their case expunged. They almost always are asking to have their photograph removed from the gallery.

Luckily, there are an increasing number of editors like Gabordi who have recognized that the American style of crime reporting— picking sensational cases with the most odious details, printing mug shots and full names, and not providing contextual information on crime and statistics in stories —needs a long-overdue overhaul.

Still, on the internet, the salacious news story and the quest for “hits” too often subsumes  conscientious reporting. Despite the fact that most prisoners will be released, permanent digital punishment in the form of salacious reporting or mug shots hinders reentry.

The “right to be forgotten,” as codified in European human rights law, is unlikely to be accepted here: It would violate the First Amendment.

When Journalists are the Problem

But that only makes it more crucial for individual journalists to temper their reporting with an understanding of how they can often unwittingly be hurdles to crime reform in this country.

The Society of Professional Journalists already has an impressive “Code of Ethics” that, among other things, enjoins journalists to “avoid stereotyping (and) never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.”

But it needs to weigh in on what responsibilities journalists owe the public when it comes to reporting on public safety and criminal justice–a code of ethics, perhaps, for crime journalism.

Compare, for example, how two similar cases were reported in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Last month, Thomas White, the founder of Silk Road 2.0, perhaps the largest clandestine drug market in history, was sentenced to five years and four months in prison by a Liverpool criminal court. Most of the trial proceedings were kept from the public under the UK’s strict reporting rules for high-profile cases to prevent “trial by media,” though White did concede in an anonymous interview that some buyers overdosed and died from his drugs.

In contrast, in 2015, Ross Ulbricht, who founded the U.S. predecessor of Silk Road, was sentenced to life without parole, despite dealing about half the drugs. He lost his appeal in 2017.

The media circus around the Ulbricht case did not help matters. It included juicy accusations about Ulbricht allegedly hiring hitmen to kill people that later fell apart. These accusations fueled the idea that Ulbricht was more than a libertarian ideologue who lost touch with reality;  he was actually a violent person.

Ulbricht’s sentencing judge cited her belief that Ulbricht ordered assassinations as her strongest rationale for his life-without-parole sentence.

Did Ulbricht’s American sentence really make the world safer than White’s British sentence did?

No, but judges are human.

Judges and Public Opinion

In a large number of states, judges are elected and must deal with political pressure when sentencing.

The recent recall of the judge who sentenced collegiate rapist Brock Turner to six month in jail, three years on probation, and a lifetime on the sex offender registry had a chilling effect through judges wanting to use their discretion more mercifully.

Even appointed judges who cannot be recalled are likely to feel deeply uncomfortable and unsafe if someone deems them “no longer human,”  and that comment gets shared thousands of times on the internet.

Police officers are also not elected, but that did not change the fact that viral pop-columnist Shaun King did immense damage to a Texas highway patrol officer and his family last year, when he falsely accused the white officer of raping an African-American woman.

Journalists have the sweeping power to shape society, especially in an era of viral media outrage.

They effectively have the power to trigger vitriol and even violence, depending on how they cover crime stories. And there’s no way to fit every fact or nuance into a story with a limited word count.

In that light, it may not seem so crazy that Swedish journalists at one point did not name criminal suspects, an interpretation of an ethics policy that at its height prevented even the name of the killer of the nation’s prime minister from being mentioned in the papers. That policy has since been relaxed, but Britt Börjesson, a professor of media ethics at Gothenburg University, said  naming defendants generally is reserved for “particularly vicious criminals.”

Indeed, Sweden’s paper of record did not name Christine Schürrer, a woman sentenced to life for murdering two toddlers, until 2009, when an appellate court upheld her sentence.

Regardless, Sweden crushes the U.S. on journalistic freedom rankings from Reporters Without Borders. So do the UK and France, which have laws that censor crime reporting from citizen-journalists.

Ending mass incarceration will require a cultural overhaul, and not one that limits nuanced analysis to the least serious cases. And the press must be part of that rethinking process.

Rory Fleming

Rory Fleming

And with at least one recent survey showing that most crime survivors actually prefer shorter sentences with more rehabilitative programming, writing crime blotters with more restraint does not seem anti-victim, either.

Rory Fleming is a Communications Specialist at the National Network for Safe Communities. He previously worked as a consultant for various District Attorneys and as a Legal Fellow at the Harvard Law School Fair Punishment Project. Fleming tweets from @RoryFleming8A. His views are his own. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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