School shooting prompts Sounding Board question about naming juveniles
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Posted by: Laura Sellers-Earl
By Alan Miller
Two teens in Utah plot to blow up a high school in January.
An Ohio a teen opens fire on fellow students in a school cafeteria in late
February, and three of them end up dying.
In those cases and virtually every other crime involving
teenage suspects, reporters and editors ask one another: Should we name the
And some Associated Press members with more liberal policies
sometimes wonder whether they will be able to name the accused, because AP
doesn’t always provide the name. In the Utah case, it named an 18-year-old
charged in adult court but not his 16-year-old accomplice facing the same
charge in juvenile court. In the Ohio case, the AP named the juvenile after his
family’s attorney held a news conference and named him – about seven hours
after Cleveland-area media named the suspect based on eyewitness accounts and
confirmed by multiple sources.
The Associated Press generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes. Here is the policy: "Do not identify juveniles (under 18) who are accused of crimes, even if other news media do so or police release names. Also, do not transmit images that would reveal their identity. Do not identify, in text or through images, juveniles (under 18) who are witnesses to crimes. … Exceptions may be made in extraordinary cases only with the approval (of editors in New York). Issues that may weigh in a decision include the severity of the alleged crime; whether police have formally released the juvenile's name; and whether the juvenile has been formally charged as an adult. Other considerations might include public safety, such as when the youth is the subject of a manhunt; or widespread publication of the juvenile suspect's name, making the identity de facto public knowledge. In some situations, state or national laws may determine whether the person can be named.”
In an attempt to determine how closely AP’s policy reflects
the policies of its members, the APME Sounding Board conducted a survey in
February – between the time of the Utah incident and the shootings in
About 65 percent of the 49 respondents said the current AP privacy
policy is acceptable, and about 35 percent said it is not. About half said they would like to see
the AP provide the names of charged juveniles in some fashion, whether in the
body of the story or an editor’s note, so that they have the choice of whether
to name the juvenile.
"Dealing with identities of juveniles, sexual assault
victims and other such sensitive matters are among the most difficult things we
deal with,” said Tom Kent, standards editor for the AP. "We get calls almost
daily from around the world on this topic. We have tried to expand our
stylebook listing on this to cover as many circumstances as possible. But it’s
often a judgment call, and we ask people to call us in New York to discuss it.”
He said the AP editors consider changes in policy as new
"I don’t think we’ll ever have the policy completely nailed,”
Kent said. It will continue to evolve, and we will continue to follow our own
conscience and our members’ wishes.”
He said the survey results show that "members use widely
different policies on this. About two-thirds say the policy as we outline it in
our stylebook is acceptable to them. When you have a third saying it’s too
strict or too lose, you have to think about it.
"If I had to predict where this will go in the next few
years, I’d say it will likely go toward naming more people than less,” Kent
|In this Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 photo, seventeen-year-old T.J. Lane is led from Juvenile Court by Sheriff's deputies in Chardon, Ohio, after his arraignment in the shooting of five high school students Monday. Three of the five students wounded in the attacks have since died. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)|
About 26 percent said that when AP does not provide the name
of a charged juvenile, their news organization seeks the name by other means
and inserts it into the AP story. "We pay significant money to the AP and it is
very frustrating to have to go to the time and expense to re-report an AP story
to get details like this,” one respondent said.
Kent said that those who currently are more liberal in their
naming policies should be transparent in reporting them. If they add a name to
an AP story that moved without the name, the member should say that the AP did
not report the name, and why, and also say where the member obtained the name.
The survey respondents were primarily managing editors or
editors, and they evenly represented all regions of the country. They also well
represented the various sizes of news organizations, with about 59 percent from
small markets, about 37 percent from mid-size markets and the rest from the
The vast majority – almost 74 percent – said that they
report names of only juveniles charged with felony-equivalent crimes, although
some said they also use the names of juveniles charged in traffic offenses. And
half of all respondents said such policies are consistent with the way they
treat adults, who are named in stories about serious crimes (and traffic
One respondent said that violent criminals are increasingly
young, "and the public deserves to know who they are.”
Another said that "the rights of the public to know about
those who are perpetrating felonious crimes outweigh the juvenile's right to
privacy. We are in the customer-service business. How are we serving our
customers by withholding the identity of those who may potentially be a threat
to them or their family as displayed through their actions?”
Nearly half of those who do not routinely name juveniles
charged with crimes said their policy is rooted in the belief that juveniles
should not be tainted by youthful indiscretion, and nearly a third of all
respondents said they are concerned about the lasting effects of publishing
names online, where they are forever searchable.
A distraught Ava Polaski, a sophomore, leaves school grounds with her mother Misty Polaski following a shooting in Chardon, Ohio on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012. A teenager described as a bullied outcast at Chardon High School opened fire in the cafeteria Monday morning, killing one student and wounding four others before being caught a short distance away, authorities said. The suspect, whose name was not released, was arrested near his car a half-mile away, the FBI said. He was not immediately charged. (Thomas Ondrey, The Plain Dealer, via AP)
AP editors said that they are cautious about including names
in some cases because AP stories are posted automatically on many news websites.
That leaves no opportunity for member editors to intervene before the story
becomes public on the Web. And they argue that leaving out the name but listing
it atop the story in an editor’s note would result in differing published
versions, making it difficult to provide updates that would cover all needs.
Several survey respondents said they judge each case on its
merits and that top editors review each story involving a juvenile charged with
a crime. Three said state laws prohibit authorities from releasing names of
charged juveniles. One respondent noted that North Carolina law prohibits
release of names of defendants under age 16 unless they are charged as adults.
And juvenile court records are sealed in Minnesota, another said, noting that
if a defendant is 16 or older and charged with a felony-level offense, the name
Some said that AP should stick with its current policy, but
that the AP should do more to explain why it is not using a name. Simply saying
that AP is not naming a juvenile because he or she is a juvenile is not enough
About half said they’d like the name delivered by the AP in
some fashion, either within the body of the story or in an attached editor’s
note, so that members have the opportunity to add the name if they choose to do
"Because all copy can be edited, I believe providing the
name for publications or broadcasters to use at their discretion may be the
most acceptable solution,” said one respondent.
Another said, "I am a strong proponent of those names being
public record and of each media outlet determining whether to publish on a
And another supports "putting the name on top of the story and
allowing individual members to make the call based on their policies and local
and state laws makes sense. That would allow for uniformity within one
Others were adamant that names of juveniles "should only be
used if the youth is charged as an adult.”
And one said that "if members want the name, let them obtain
Commenting on the survey topic, Jan Leach, a journalism
professor at Kent State University, an ethics fellow for the Poynter Institute
and former editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, said that news organizations sometimes go too far to protect teens.
"It’s complicated,” she said. "You’re doing a balancing act
between those who needs to know the information and how important it is.”
She said journalists must consider the seriousness of crime,
validity of information and what it will do for the story. "Does it advance the
story, or does it just satisfy curiosity? Is the person missing? Are you
clarifying who the person is and helping the community? Age is also a factor.
In the case of the school-cafeteria shootings in Chardon,
east of Cleveland, the teen charged in the shootings is 17, which Leach said is
old enough to name. The severity of the crime is another factor. It wasn’t an
accident, she said, and not only were many people shot, three teenagers are
"That’s a very serious crime. The seriousness of the crime
is always a key factor for me,” Leach said.
She said there are "really good and ethically justifiable
reasons for naming juveniles. I really hate that some readers think we do this
just because we can.
"There are times when we do it because we can, but this is
an information-saturated society, and if you don’t provide it, someone else
Leach said that reporters and editors should give some consideration
to the permanency and viral nature of the digital age. But, she said, that’s
probably the least of the problems for the teen charged in the Chardon case.
Thom Fladung, managing editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, said the decision to use the name of
T.J. Lane in early reports on Cleveland.com even before he was charged was a
pretty easy decision.
A reporter got the name from a fellow student who had grown
up with the shooter and was so close to him in the cafeteria that he saw flames
from the pistol barrel and was nicked in the ear from a bullet. And the
reporter confirmed the name with "multiple people in a position to know” before
Fladung said editors discussed the matter and asked the
question: What is the compelling reason to keep this person’s name out of the
paper or out of the online version?
Whether to name a juvenile should be done on a case-by-case
basis, he said, but "my position is, tell me why we shouldn’t.”
There was no reason in this case, he said, and he has heard
In lesser cases, he said, there is sometimes good reason to
publish names to rule out others who could be seen as suspects in an
"We had a situation here in which a couple of members of a
hockey team were suspended,” Fladung said. "We named them and took some flak
for that, but if you don’t name them, you in effect have smeared everyone on
He said that the question that isn’t asked often enough in
newsrooms is: If we’re not going to name the person, do we have a story? If you
truly think you can’t name the person, a valid question to ask is whether it’s
a worthy story.
"Clearly, I don’t like to not have names,” he said.
Alan D. Miller is managing editor / news for The Columbus
Dispatch and chairman of the APME Sounding Board Committee.