Book explores privacy vs. tell-all crime reporting

Special to Western News

In her new book, 'Murder in Our Midst: Comparing Crime Coverage Ethics in an Age of Globalized News', Western professor Romayne Smith Fullerton identifies three models of disclosure and coverage of crime suspects, including ones deemed Watchdogs (the United States, Canada and Great Britain), where suspects’ names and identifying details are fair game.

In the United States, it’s known as the ‘perp walk’ – a public parading of arrested suspects in front of media so everyone can share in the spectacle. While Americans love that kind of show, in other countries, however, the public is unlikely to know the names, let alone the faces, of those arrested and convicted of crimes.

In a soon-to be-published book, Media and Information Studies professor Romayne Smith Fullerton and Duquesne University professor Maggie Jones Patterson take a detailed look at public attitudes to crime and the media through case studies and interviews with journalists around the world about how and why they cover crime the way they do.

Murder in Our Midst: Comparing Crime Coverage Ethics in an Age of Globalized News argue that these different approaches serve as a mirror into attitudes about crime, punishment, rehabilitation, privacy and the public interest within each society.

The authors identify three country models of disclosure and coverage: Protectors (Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany), where media rarely identify suspects by their full names; Watchdogs (the United States, Canada and Great Britain), where suspects’ names and identifying details are fair game; and Ambivalents (Spain, Portugal, and Italy), with a mixed approach to naming suspects and convicted people.

Canada’s practice of naming names received a long, hard look earlier this year when several news outlets decided – as a way to memorialize the victims rather than their killer – not to name the Nova Scotia shooter who killed 22 people and injured three others.

Some news outlets, conversely, argued the public was entitled to as much information about the man as could be found.

Protector countries often take the opposite stance.

“(They believe) that the public has a right to know that a crime has occurred, but that they don’t need likely to know all the specific details of who did it, where they live, how old they are,” Smith Fullerton said. “We don’t need to know the backstory of their partners, their parents where they grew up, all of that material, because their conception of community is more inclusive than ours.

“They have different histories, different traditions and the concept of a nation in somewhere like the Netherlands is, ‘We’re all in this together and if you commit a crime that’s because someone’s made a mistake or someone has fallen through a crack and there but for the grace of the goddess go I.’”

Smith Fullerton said a lot of newsroom conversations are taking place in all countries.

Technology, social media and Internet globalization of the news are placing pressure on media to change. Those forces may forge a homogeneity that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Publication bans that prevent airing details about a case in one country can butt up against press-freedom laws that will see the details published anyhow in another country or in the borderless world of the Internet.

The Nova Scotia slayings also showed there is a range within countries of how competing media will choose to disclose, or not, details of a case.

That’s also the case in the Netherlands, Smith Fullerton said, where some papers resolutely refused to name names their competitors had published.

“We asked, ‘Why would they keep protecting these details when everybody else has them?’ They said, ‘Because it doesn’t matter. Yes, we realize that material is findable. But the principle doesn’t change. We believe in the principle of protecting persons accused for these particular reasons and that’s not going to change. We have a readership who shares our belief in the rightness of those principles. If we were to change how we do that we would lose people, not gain.’”

Murder in Our Midst will be published by Oxford University Press in November.