A Win for Justice in Crime Reporting

FAMM Foundation
FAMM
Published in
3 min readJul 6, 2021

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“Newspapers yellow” by NS Newsflash is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Rabiah Burks

I’m very happy to hear that the Associated Press will no longer name people as suspects in minor crimes. It’s a small but significant step in a growing movement to humanize people impacted by the criminal justice system in the press.

I am thrilled that journalists are starting to realize how crime reporting can damage lives. Initial crime stories are written before anyone is convicted. Thus, how the story is reported can influence public perception about a person’s innocence or guilt before they even have chance to step foot in a courtroom.

It also doesn’t help that crimes stories are almost entirely written from the perspective of those seeking a conviction. When a journalist shows up to the scene of a crime, they have to turn to the people who can immediately speak about the incident. Those people are most often our first-responders, such as law enforcement, and victims.

On the other side, in the very early stages of the development of a case, defense attorneys will often decline to speak to reporters because they fear that engagement with the press will hurt their clients, or they simply haven’t had a chance to speak with their client.

Without access to the person accused or their lawyer, journalists will proceed with the information they have in an effort to explain the incidents to the public.

The overarching issue is that the stories tend to live online forever, and they fail to humanize the people accused or convicted. Because of this, people can never fully recover from some of the most traumatic times in their lives.

For individuals who have fought their cases and won, the initial crime stories often stop them from getting jobs or other opportunities. Relationships can become difficult as people google potential partners. In most cases, as the AP points out, newsrooms do not have the resources to write follow-ups on every crime story they cover. Thus, the first few stories are often the last.

None of this is intentional on the part of most journalists, who simply seek to inform the public on the happenings of the day, whether it’s a robbery on Pennsylvania Avenue or someone getting nabbed for a Ponzi scheme. Many media outlets have even explored the “right to be forgotten,” as they start to recognize how old stories have damaged everyday people’s lives. I would go further and suggest that it’s time to overhaul and reexamine traditional crime reporting. We must question the process, seek ways of ensuring that the stories are truly balanced, and do not convict people in court of public perception.

The recent changes from the Associated Press regarding not naming suspects in minor crimes, and the AP Style Guide changes on the use of the term “officer-involved,” are a start. I look forward to seeing what more can be done.

Rabiah Burks is FAMM’s Vice President of Communications.

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FAMM Foundation
FAMM

FAMM is a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal justice policies.