The ethics of reporting misdemeanor crimes

Police lights

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series of student opinion pieces about issues in communication ethics. Check back on the #LifeasaJStudent Blog for future posts in the series. Know of a journalist or news organization that made ethical decisions while publishing a story in 2019? Nominate them by February 15 for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism.

By Tim Trainor

As a journalist who has worked for a number of rural newspapers, I have long had an uncomfortable relationship with the police log. A traditional and well-read part of many small media outlets, the log is usually a list of misdemeanor crimes, police activity and court actions.

As an editor, I commonly heard from readers who had their names published in the log. It often had an adverse effect on their lives: It cost them a job or the respect of their friends and neighbors; resulted in a parole violation; affected their custody of their children; or it caused other long-term problems that made their lives harder. 

Despite this feedback, we held strong to a set of rules about what we would publish and why —  and we did not deviate from those rules regardless of the extenuating circumstances or the power of the person involved.

In some ways, I still think that is the essence of journalism. We should always be working toward publishing the truth, operating transparently, shedding light on what is happening in our community and scrutinizing how our government is enforcing the laws we enact.

On the other hand, society now has a better understanding of the outsized, damaging effects the criminal justice system can have on the poor and on people of color. In addition, the internet has brought a new level of permanence to the log. A Google search means this information remains attached to a person for their lifetime, rather than quickly being buried under a stack of daily papers.

I began grappling with this issue as part of my digital ethics class, a required course for students in the UO School of Journalism and Communication’s multimedia journalism master’s program. Students are asked to tackle an ethical dilemma that has loomed large in their personal or professional lives.

After spending the term debating the value of the police log with both professors and classmates, I came to the conclusion that journalists should continue to support the dissemination of public information. There will always be value in knowing who our government is arresting and incarcerating.

However, we should also recognize our power over individual citizens who don’t buy ink by the gallon or get thousands of web hits per hour. When we publish lists of minor crimes and violations, we should do it with more care, nuance and flexibility. Journalists should work to reduce public shaming, increase the scrutiny of our criminal justice system and treat the people in the cop log like people.

My hard work on debating this issue will allow me to approach the longstanding traditions of journalism with an eye for improvement.

Tim Trainor is a multimedia journalism graduate student. He has worked as a reporter and editor at small newspapers throughout the American West.

Know of a journalist or news organization that faced an ethical dilemma while publishing a story in 2019? Nominate them by Feb. 15 for the SOJC's 2020 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. This year’s 20th anniversary winner will receive a $10,000 prize.

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