‘Cheap Clicks’: How the Media ‘Stigmatizes’ Suspects

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Photo by Andy Brown via Flickr

Recent decisions by news outlets to shield the names of those arrested for misdemeanors  raise provocative questions about the media’s longtime reliance on crime news, much of it sensational, writes Jack Shafer, senior media writer for Politico.

Critics both inside and outside the news industry would like to staunch the usual flow of crime reporting with some new practices, Shafer wrote in a recent column.  

“Their argument boils down to this: Too much crime reporting unnecessarily stigmatizes both suspects and the convicted.”

Associated Press recently announced that “AP will no longer name suspects in minor crime stories, which we sometimes cover and pick up from member news organizations as one-off briefs because they are ‘odd’ and of interest to our customers.”

“Usually, we don’t follow up with coverage about the outcome of the cases. We may not know if the charges were later dropped or reduced, as they often are, or if the suspect was later acquitted,” said the Associated Press.

What makes people’s lives especially difficult in this regard is Google.

AP wrote: “These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.”

As Shafer put it, Google search has “frozen into electronic amber every reported misdemeanor or felony, condemning the suspects to an eternity of shame.”

Under the “right to be forgotten” rubric, Cleveland.com (and sister institution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer), The Boston Globe, the Bangor Daily News and other newspapers have altered the way crime news should be preserved and retrieved.

Cleveland.com announced a Right to be Forgotten policy, in which it removes names of people from dated, embarrassing stories about them.

“In the days before the Internet, newspapers carried stories about minor crimes or stupid antics, and the stories almost immediately faded from memory,” Cleveland.com wrote.

“People paid the court-required penalties for their crimes and moved on, and you could find evidence of the mistakes only by searching court dockets or combing through newspaper microfilm. Few people did that.”

However, Shafer also raises the question of protection of the public.

He writes, “Can we justify rewriting newspaper archives because old but accurate stories embarrass people?”

“Exercising a right to be forgotten obviously helps those who wish to shield their past from scrutiny. But it inflicts potential harms on job recruiters, loan officers, prospective business partners, dates and others who want an accurate gauge of someone’s long-term reputation.”

The movement to revise old stories wouldn’t be happening if newspapers hadn’t made their archives available to the Google search engine, which made mass searches possible, writes Shafer.

“Had newspapers withheld their archives from the Google crawler, people would have to search one newspaper at a time for names.”

Shafer underscores a point mentioned by the Associated Press: the failure of news media to follow up on arrests: was the person exonerated? This too often is shrugged off, leaving the arrest in Google for eternity.

“The right-to-be-forgotten proponents have done us a great service by underscoring how good journalists are at publishing news about arrests but how wretched they are recording innocence, exoneration or dropped charges,” Shafer writes.

But he suggests that solution to this journalistic shortcoming isn’t to blank the names of suspects from old stories or to hide them from Google.

“If the arrest of a suspect is newsworthy enough to be reported in a newspaper, the exoneration or the dropping of charges should be equally newsworthy.”

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