Why journalists need to think twice about reporting on arrests

Darcell Trotter. Photo by Tim Grant for Out of Omaha documentary.

Last month, Out of Omaha, a documentary that follows twin brothers Darcell and Darrell Trotter through eight years of their lives, made its broadcast debut. The film shows how the two mature into young adults as they face economic hardships, emotional turmoil, and the criminal justice system.

In 2012, the filmmakers show, the brothers were charged with first-degree sexual assault. Then the charges were dropped, as their accuser recanted her story and pleaded guilty to falsifying her report. But a brief article published in September 2012 by the Lincoln Journal Star on the initial charges remained online. The film shows Darcell Trotter phoning multiple publications, including the Lincoln Star, asking them to remove mentions of his involvement in a crime now that the charges had been dropped. Some editors removed the information, but others did not. The Lincoln Star article is still online today, and on the first page of Darcell Trotter’s Google results—a scarlet letter for any potential dates or employers to find. 

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In the United States, an individual’s name and photo can legally be published in connection with criminal charges prior to the establishment of guilt. On any given day a search with the keywords “arrested” or “charged with” yields the names and mugshots of hundreds of people from across the country who have not yet had their day in court. Often, they’re labeled criminals, as was pointed out in a recent piece in The Appeal

Americans believe violent crime is rising, despite its decline over the years. Crime is now at its lowest rate in four decades. Yet it remains the number one topic on local news.

Some journalists may feel that regardless of whether a person is guilty or not, criminal allegations should be published in order to inform communities of potential risks. But not all crimes put the public at risk, and not all reports of crimes are accurate or valid. In a viral TED Talk, Chimimanda Adichie, the award-winning author, called it, “the danger of a single story.” In the case of criminal allegations, the narrative given to reporters most often comes solely from police officers (often unattributed) or prosecutors. Defense attorneys often decline to comment, and advise their clients to do the same, to prevent difficulties later in court. So there is usually no counter-argument, unless the case is high-profile enough to merit substantive follow-up. Most are not. 

Sophie Haigney, who covered breaking news at a Bay Area outlet for just under a year before she stepped away, came to feel that the way we cover crime is intrinsically broken. The best she could hope for on deadline, she realized, was a name, age, charge, and a quote from law enforcement. “That is the job as we see it now,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be that way.” 

Polling shows that Americans believe violent crime is rising, despite its decline over the years. Crime is now at its lowest rate in four decades. Yet it remains the number one topic on local news. “I think there are a lot of really messed up incentives for newspapers and TV stations to cover crimes they probably shouldn’t be covering,” Haigney says, “or should be covering in a way that focuses a lot more on systems and trends.” She wishes that reporters didn’t feel bound to publish any and all information they have, regardless of how the job has functioned in years past. “Why can’t we start thinking about the job a little differently?” 

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For young men like the Trotter brothers, it’s more than a theoretical debate. On many job applications, disclosure of one’s criminal records are mandatory, although this only applies to cases of conviction. Ban the box policies, which aim to eliminate the question of conviction history from job applications, have been adopted in some form by thirty-five states, so that employers judge candidates on their qualifications first, and not their legal past. The European Union has “the right to be forgotten,” a law that gives citizens the ability to demand that a search engine or website remove or unlink information they view as obsolete or a privacy intrusion. (Last month, France proposed to the European Court that the right to be forgotten be applied to internet users around the world, but the court rejected the expansion.) 

 That leaves the matter in the hands of journalists. What can we do? A starting point may be for daily news outlets to start publishing less about crime. Or to report charges without the use of names and photos, specifically in cases where the alleged aren’t a potential threat to the community. Crime stories might also come with automatic unpublishing dates. 

More fundamentally, crime reporting need not be rooted in the traditional methods of regurgitating the few known facts of an incident. Publishing underreported crime stories often has little benefit for the public, and catastrophic consequences for a suspect. Being arrested and charged is not the same as being guilty. “We had done nothing wrong,” Darcell Trotter says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

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This post has been updated to correct the amount of time Sophie Haigney spent as a breaking-news reporter.

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Akintunde Ahmad is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @akintundeahmad.