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Home > Reading Room > When is a subject's criminal background relevant?

SPJ Reading Room

To Print or Not To Print
When is a subject's criminal background relevant?

By Michelle Frye

The story assignments are simple: Write an article on a man who is being reunited with the child he donated bone marrow to years earlier. A woman in your community was just named to a top religious position. Find people who rely on the public transportation system.

The photos are taken.

The story is scheduled to run in the next day’s newspaper or on the evening news segment.

But a last-minute discovery has reporters, editors and even the subject of the story scratching their heads.

You’ve discovered that one of the people you’re writing about has a criminal history.

Now comes the questions you never anticipated on this story.

Should the background be a part of the story? If the answer is yes, what place should it have in the story?

How should you explain the decision to readers or viewers who wonder why it wasn’t or ask why we make a person’s past haunt them forever?

Should we even publish or broadcast the story?

The angst of making these decisions doesn’t have to be as difficult as it often is. Newsrooms fail in not having a policy that defines the threshold of who should be subject to a criminal background search, a journalism ethics expert said. As a result, journalists wrestle with each story on a case-by-case basis.

Although there is no simple formula that will give journalists a black-and-white answer about whether to print the history, some basic guidelines will help reporters and editors feel comfortable with their decision and help them explain that decision to their audience.

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute and a former reporter, offers this:

Information you leave out of a story should not directly contradict the information you put in.

What you put in the story should not contradict the facts you leave out.

Although stories give only a slice of a person or issue, and never the entire picture, journalists should take all steps necessary to ensure that it is a representative slice, McBride said.

Consider these examples.

An East Coast newspaper picked a man and woman each week from the personal classifieds and offered them to readers as a bachelor or bachelorette of the week. The person the staff picked one week had a criminal history that included stalking or assault.

“Should we be checking? Yes,” McBride said. “If we are putting our stamp of approval on someone, and somehow suggesting that they are interesting or desirable, then assume credibility will be at stake if they aren’t.”

The Advocate-Messenger newspaper in central Kentucky is covering a murder in a nearby county. A juvenile was charged. The boy’s father has served time in prison for drug trafficking, managing editor John Nelson said.

Although the editorial staff was first concerned with the obstacles of covering the case as it unfolded in closed-door juvenile proceedings, they knew the issue of the father’s criminal background would surface.

The boy’s case was moved to adult court, and on the same day of his indictment and arraignment, the father was arraigned in court on unrelated charges.

Nelson said now the father’s record will become more relevant to the story, especially if it is determined that the juvenile has used drugs.

Every case is different, Nelson said, and a newsroom can’t assume that a criminal background is relevant to every story.

“We like to think there is a step one, two and three process,” Nelson said. “A whole lot of it is instinct and gut feelings that you develop over a period of time and experience.”

McBride knows the challenge most newsrooms face: having the resources to perform the checks.

The policy must be applied equally to all newsroom desks, and it must be fair. Journalists must resist the tendency to check for criminal backgrounds more often if the subject is poor or a person of color, McBride said.

Newsrooms must examine their system, or a lack of a system, and come up with something that is fair, she said.

“That’s really hard because we’re human. Biases play into this,” she said.

At a big metro newspaper, if the journalists downtown run background checks, then reporters at the bureaus need to do the same. In a smaller newsroom, if reporters covering news run checks, but the features and sports reporters don’t, the policy isn’t fair, she said.

Explaining to readers, viewers and sources
Nelson recalled a case in a community where he lived. A prominent member of the community was rumored to be a pedophile. A child came forward to report he had been abused, and police started an investigation.

When the man was confronted with the allegations, he shot himself.

Years later, when the victim turned 18, he filed a lawsuit against the man’s estate. Court documents revealed the boy’s accusations in graphic detail. The newspaper wrote about it.

The newsroom knew that publishing the information would enrage some and enlighten others. The same day it was printed, the newspaper published a column to explain why the journalists made the decision.

“Sometimes you know you’re going to take a hit, but you know it’s the right thing to do, and you do it,” Nelson said.

To keep from furthering the stereotypes that journalists are slimy people always looking for the negative, newsrooms should do all they can to explain the decision to readers, Nelson said.

Over the years, we haven’t done a good job of explaining our decisions to our readers as we make them, Nelson said.

“That’s one of the reasons that we feel misunderstood. We need to do a better job of that,” he said.

“When we see that we are making a decision that might appear to some people as less than honorable or that we know is going to result in some bad feelings, if we can find a way to get out in front of it, then we stand a better chance of convincing the public that we’re not slimy, that we really have good intentions,” he said.

A former city editor said editors or producers should listen carefully to readers or viewers who call to complain, determine whether you agree, explain the close call and why you made the decision you did. A reasonable caller will understand.

When Bill Marimow, now vice president of news at National Public Radio, worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the newsroom had to decide how to handle the obituary of a well-known lawyer. When pulling archive stories, they realized he had been at the epicenter of a corruption investigation and was convicted.

The case had unfolded 25 to 30 years earlier. At the time, his name and actions were trumpeted across the front pages of three Philadelphia newspapers.

The question: Should his corruption activity be mentioned in the obituary?

And if so, how should it be handled?

The news staff decided that if the newspaper was going to publish a 15- to 18-inch display obituary, the information had to be included. If they opted for a brief obituary announcement of just a few sentences, it could be left out.

The family was deeply disturbed that the newspaper was even considering including the corruption activity, and the newspaper chose to go with the brief.

“To me, if you’re going to write a long story about someone who was in the news constantly, at one point, you can’t omit that from a news story,” Marimow said. “It was part of his life.”

Journalists should consider the rest of the person’s background, the frequency of the crime and how recently it occurred, he said.

If it was remote and only one time, give them the benefit of the doubt, Marimow said.

Asking questions
McBride, who is director of the summer fellowship for recent college graduates at Poynter, requires reporters in the program to do a criminal background check on every person they write about. The goal is to make sure rookie reporters become adept at making these types of decisions.

Two summers ago, a reporter in the program pursued a story about a man who had an interesting way of washing cars. Fifteen minutes before deadline, the reporter remembered to do a background check.

Pages and pages of criminal history were on the screen. The record included car theft and drug charges.

The reporter’s jaw dropped.

Faculty members at Poynter agreed that the information had to go in the story, but disagreed on how. Should the reporter include a two-paragraph insert that discloses the information to readers or did the entire story need to be restructured?

Some questions they asked: What’s the journalistic purpose of the story? How is that purpose affected by this information? What does the subject say? What would readers say if we didn’t include this information and they found out about it? What kind of endorsement are we suggesting?

Three things to always remember, McBride said:

Make absolute certain the person you have the criminal records of is the person you are writing about and get a clear sense of the details of the crime and how the case was resolved.

Talk to an editor about how pertinent the information is.

Always, go back to the source and ask questions. Try to get the person to talk about it.

Last summer, a reporter in the program pursued a story on the public bus system. The journalistic purpose of the story was to show how crucial the transportation system was to some people.

The reporter rode on the bus and talked to a woman who cleaned a hotel to make ends meet and was raising a couple of kids. The woman was used to demonstrate the fragility of the lives of poor people.

During the criminal background check, the reporter discovers that police have a warrant for her arrest.

The woman was accused of getting stolen payroll checks from a friend and forging them because she needed the cash. Her explanation to the reporter: She’d had a rough time and then failed to appear in court after her mistake.

The journalists were concerned about what would happen to the woman if they disclosed the information. The story would alert the authorities. Would she be arrested? Lose her job? Lose her children? They called a probation officer and posed a hypothetical situation. She would likely be arrested but not held in jail, the officer said.

“There would be consequences, but not as drastic,” McBride said. “She was OK with it. She really was trying to get her life back together. She was willing to deal with the consequences.”

The dramatic turnaround of a person’s life is a very big part of the story, McBride said.

“The reality is that most people’s lives are very, very messy and very complicated,” Mc Bride said. “To ignore that reality is to tell a smaller version of the truth than we are capable of.”

The other options
Too many times, journalists don’t consider all the options. There may be other ways to tell the story. Maybe the story gets axed altogether.

“While you don’t want to relinquish your independence as a journalist, when a story has no compelling reason other than it is interesting, but little public value, ask yourself: Do we need to tell a story?” McBride said.

Journalists struggle with throwing out a story because they are already so invested in it. The interviews are done, the story may already be written, photographers have captured the images and page designers or producers are waiting for it.

Don’t hesitate to look for another way to tell the story, McBride said.

“The worst reason to do a story is because you’re already invested in it and planned it for the cover,” she said.

She recalled a story from the St. Petersburg Times. A bone marrow donor was going to be reunited with the benefactor child. The donor agency encouraged the newspaper to do the story.

In doing a background check, the newsroom discovered the donor had drug and domestic violence convictions that were more than a decade old.

The newspaper decided that the information was important because they were painting this man as a hero.

If the victims of his crimes or other readers were to read the story and know another truth about the man, the newspaper loses credibility.

In McBride’s opinion, the newspaper handled the information clumsily and didn’t really explore the option of not running the story. They were already so invested in it.

In the end, the donor wished he had not participated. Some readers wrote to the paper, saying the man had turned his life around and criticizing the newspaper for airing his dirty laundry, McBride said.

McBride’s idea: Wait two or three months for another donor and benefactor to be reunited. The public would still gain the benefits of the story, and the harm would have been avoided.

Newsroom policies
McBride says she encourages newspapers to have a policy of checking more subjects for criminal backgrounds. In her four years at Poynter, she has found that most newspapers have not thought the issue through.

When coming up with a policy, consider the impact on juveniles, immigrants, teachers or any subject who stands to lose a lot from having his or her criminal background published or broadcast.

“I’m not saying you create a category that you cover for,” McBride said. “You really make sure that you have examined the potential harm that would come, and, if at all possible, to not do the story and find another subject,” McBride said.

Sometimes, such as when someone is running for public office, that’s not a responsible option, Marimow said.

When a person chooses to put himself in the public eye by seeking office, responsible journalists should check criminal and civil cases involving him. Whether that information ever makes it to press or broadcast should depend on the importance of the office being sought, the seriousness of the crime and when the crime occurred, he said.

If the president is accused of having a drinking problem, it’s relevant.

If a city council candidate was arrested 24 years earlier for disorderly conduct at a wedding and has a clean record since then, the information is not relevant, Marimow advises.

Jim Burke, who helps operate the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists through the Chicago Headline Club, received a call from a Pennsylvania journalist who was covering a story about a priest from Florida who had come to the community to take over a parish. During his first sermon, he told the congregation that he has a past involving a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boy.

He wanted the congregation to know.

But it wasn’t true. His past included a sexual relationship with a younger boy and multiple charges.

The reporter felt threatened. If the information was published, the newspaper could lose advertisements and circulation.

The conclusion they reached: She had to press on with the information. She owed it to the community.

“If something happened in the community, you’d never forgive yourself,” said Burke, who is chairman of the advisory board for Loyola University’s Center for Ethics.

Always consider whether there is a compelling need to let the community know and your own motives in pursuing the story, Burke said.

In the 1970s, Marimow and other reporters were working on a story about a police sergeant charged with beating up a young man. Tipsters said the sergeant had been involved in assaulting many men and women through the years.

The newspaper’s investigation turned up 15 allegations of beating unarmed men and women.

In this case, the past allegations are completely relevant because they directly relate to the case at hand, Marimow said.

If a jail inmate says he is innocent of a violent crime, whether the inmate has been arrested or convicted for other crimes of violence is absolutely relevant. When a person says he has been beaten without cause, reporters should always look up the criminal record and ask themselves what is more believable, he said.

Communication in the newsroom
Reporters can find the information on the subject’s background very interesting. It’s the editors’ job to find the middle ground.

Inevitably, some reporters will latch on to the criminal background and structure a story around it. Other reporters will shy away from the information and drag their feet about questioning the subject again.

“The beauty of reporters is that they are passionate people who tend to visualize a story, and the beauty of a newsroom system is that the editors serve as checks and balances. They rein reporters back towards the center,” McBride said.

She pushes both extremes to have an honest conversation and keep the information in context.

When a person’s criminal background will be shared with readers or viewers, discussion and education about how to handle the information is key.

Editors should talk to reporters about why we shouldn’t tell part of the story, or why we should, and why it is key that the reporter go back and get the rest of the story, Nelson said.

In 1985, Amy Eilberg was named first conservative rabbi in the history of the United States. The religion reporter on the story wondered if he should tell readers that her father, a former U.S. congressman, had been convicted years earlier of corruption. If he included the information, how should it be handled?

The woman begged the newspaper not to include it.

Marimow advised the reporter to include the information in the form of small paragraphs deep in the story. Later in the editing process, the deputy managing editor took out the information about the conviction, but left her parents’ names.

Marimow said in very sensitive cases, he would call seven or eight journalists involved into his office and ask what they think about it.

He knows he would find varying viewpoints, from those questioning why the news organization would tarnish the reputation of someone who has led an exemplary life since the crime to determination that the information can’t be left out.

Once you’ve heard all the opinions, trust your instincts and experience, Marimow said.

Michelle Frye is the managing editor for the Daily Journal in Franklin, Ind.

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