The Surprising Reason Some Countries Don’t Publish The Names Of Accused Persons

And what can the difference tell us about why we cover crime as we do?

Romayne Smith Fullerton is an associate professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. With Maggie Jones Patterson, she has written a book about crime-coverage practices around the world, titled Murder in Our Midst: Comparing the Ethics of Crime Coverage in a Globalized Age, to be published in November by Oxford University Press.

In the aftermath of the killings of 22 people in Nova Scotia, there has been a great deal of talk about whether journalists ought to name and show photographs of the shooter.

On one side, most media professionals have argued for full disclosure, while acknowledging that coverage ought to be undertaken in a manner sensitive to the victims and their families, and with an eye to limiting contagion. This was the perspective outlined by the Toronto Star and, with a slightly different emphasis, the CBC, among others.

On the other side, many people, including our Prime Minister, asked journalists not to name the gunman and to ignore his image. Following sound research that demonstrates the real threat of copycat crimes, and an approach lauded by an American victims’ rights group, No Notoriety, ordinary folks begged that the shooter not be given, in Justin Trudeau’s words, “the gift of infamy.”

This recent debate about whether to name and identify persons accused of serious crimes may surprise many of us. What’s to debate? After all, here in Canada, we almost always name names, and show photographs and videos if they’re available.

This has been our default journalism practice for more than 100 years, and for longer than that in the United States and Great Britain, which have both influenced our attitudes about how crime ought to be covered.

So it may come as an even bigger surprise that our practice of naming names is not universal.

Few journalists in any of the countries we studied realized that others cover crime differently. Most assume their practice is the practice.

While journalists here in Canada are being urged to exercise restraint in identifying the Nova Scotia shooter, consider a case from the Netherlands, in 2009, that offers a genuine contrast.

It was April, in Apeldoorn, a tiny village in the central part of the country. Nearly everyone had turned out to celebrate because it was Queen’s Day, a national holiday marking the Dutch queen’s birthday.

While national and local television cameras rolled, and news photographers snapped photographs to document what is usually a happy, light-hearted event, a man drove a small car through two police barriers directly into a crowd of spectators, who were lining the parade route hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal family processing in an open-air bus.

Using the car as a weapon, this man killed seven people and seriously injured 10 more before he plowed into a large stone memorial. He died the next day of head injuries sustained in that crash, but not before he confessed to police that he had intended to assassinate Queen Beatrix.

The man’s name was Karst Tates, but few people in the Netherlands would know that, especially if they’d relied solely on the coverage provided by the Dutch Press Agency — the ANP, or Algemeen Nederland Persbureau, a news co-operative that withheld his family name and referred to him only as “Karst T.”

This was not a practice required by law. In Holland, and several other European and Scandinavian countries, journalists make such choices to protect accused persons and their families because they believe this is the right, the ethical, thing to do.

“Most mainstream reputable Dutch media don’t routinely name or identify people charged, or in some cases convicted, of serious crimes,” an ANP editor told my American colleague, Maggie Jones Patterson, who was touring the ANP newsroom with students not long after the assassination attempt.

When I first heard this story from Patterson, who is a journalism professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, we shared our disbelief: How could the Netherlands — a country so seemingly like Canada and the US in many ways — be so very different in this respect? And what can that difference tell us about why we cover crime as we do? Are there lessons to be learned from comparison?

These questions launched a 10-year exploration in which Patterson and I analyzed crime-coverage practices in 10 countries — Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. We used journalists’ decisions about how, and in what ways, they cover crime as a lens to examine underlying cultural attitudes to concepts like “public,” “private,” “the public’s right to know,” and “justice.”

After familiarizing ourselves with relevant media laws and prevailing ethics codes in each country, we worked from provocative, high-profile examples like the Netherlands incident, reading sample coverage and conducting follow-up interviews (nearly 200 in all) with crime and court reporters, editors, and journalism educators, to ask them to tell us how and why they made the decisions they did. We then sorted the countries into groups based on their dominant schools of thought. (For more, see “The Watchdogs, The Protectors, and The Ambivalents” sidebar below.)

One of the findings — relevant to the current discussion occurring in Canada — is that other countries do make different decisions about naming accused and convicted persons, and those choices are based in histories, values, and beliefs unique to each locale. In our experience, few journalists in any of the countries we studied realized that others cover crime differently. Most assume that their practice is the practice.

This is not to suggest that journalists elsewhere never name names, but they carefully consider whether naming is in the public interest.

Dutch journalists offered three values they weigh when making a decision. First, they consider that the accused person has a family, and may have children; all are vulnerable to harm through naming, and they have not chosen to be a part of the story. Second, journalists note that media coverage can obliterate an accused’s genuine presumption of innocence, and that this is unfair; it is not the role of media to judge, and when they do, innocent persons’ lives can be ruined. Third, and equally alien to North American ears, journalists note that even upon conviction, once a person has paid their debt to society, they must be able to rejoin their communities free of stigma. As the head of the Dutch Union of Journalists put it to us, “In the United States, everyone has the right to make a million dollars. In Holland, everyone has the right to start again.”

Few people would advocate for Canada’s wholesale adoption of the default Dutch practice of not naming names, but considering the reasons for their practice can help shed light on why we do crime coverage differently.

While the criminal justice system in countries like the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany share our values — transparency, public access, and justice — citizens and journalists alike largely trust their governments, the police, and the criminal justice process. They believe that stories can be told, and details shared, without specificity. They are concerned about trials by media that can be unfair to defendants and to their families. And even if there is a conviction, most want to give criminals a second chance. Their protective press policies suggest that anyone can make a mistake and that no one deserves to be expelled from the community forever.

Here in Canada, we come from different judicial, political, and press traditions. Our current debate about naming is happening against a background of laws and practices that assume public records ought to be open to the public, and that factual details can generally be published by the press. We have a fundamental skepticism about government — we rarely trust those in positions of authority — so our journalists function as watchdogs, keeping an eye on government and its institutions. We also tend to believe that individuals ought to take responsibility for themselves, and that citizens need access to enough information to be free and self-governing in a democracy.

When a person is accused of a crime, we believe that the best and safest practice is one of transparency, so as to avoid, in the worst case, secret inquisitions or incarcerations. And so we name names, because we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. While an accused person may ultimately be found not guilty, and a stain on their reputation may remain, they and their family members are seen as unavoidable collateral damage. But a greater good is served, and truth will eventually win out.

The point of our work was not to argue that one approach to covering crime is better than another, or more ethical, but rather that a country’s choices are deeply rooted in values and beliefs that have evolved over time largely to mirror ideas about community, individuals, and justice.

None of these practices ought to be written in stone, because they need to reflect what the majority of us values, and it’s a process that continually demands examination of unexamined assumptions. It’s timely and important for journalists — and the public — to question our current practices, and decide whether we Canadians continue to prioritize the values and ideals that undergird and inform naming names.

Top image: The Nova Scotia shooter, as seen in a 2014 story from CTV News Atlantic, with some pixelation added by us.

The Watchdogs, The Protectors, and The Ambivalents

In our forthcoming book on crime-coverage ethics, we used our findings to organize our sample countries into three media models: The Protectors (the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany), where the default is to protect an accused’s — and in some instances, a convicted person’s — identity; the Watchdogs (Canada, United States, Great Britain, Ireland), whose usual practice is to name and fully identify perpetrators; and the Ambivalents (Spain, Portugal, Italy), comprising young democracies, whose journalists, as the name implies, borrow aspects of practice from the two other models.

But while protection of the accused is the usual practice in the Protectors’ model, insight can also be gleaned from how they draw exceptions.

Lennart Weibull, founder and senior researcher at the SOM (Society, Opinion, Media) Institute and professor in the Department of Journalism, Media, and Communication at Gothenburg University, noted that Sweden has the oldest press-freedom laws in the world, but the possibility of the government introducing privacy legislation is ever present. So the Swedish press made a compromise with their parliament, in which “you might be able to publish [identifying details] if it were a public person and public event, but not a private person and a private event,” Weibull said, as he drew a version of this diagram on a whiteboard:

1) Private person/Private event3) Public person/Private event
2) Private person/Public event4) Public person/Public event

According to Weibull, the sentiment among journalists in Sweden is that criminal events in quadrant 1 — a private person committing a private crime, such as domestic violence — should not be publicized. On the other hand, those in quadrant 4 — a public person committing a public crime, such as a public official engaged in fraud with public monies — should be, and the offender should be fully identified.

The same stance is taken in Germany, where an official’s personal life could become public if it affects their role in public office.

The more challenging questions come up in situations that fit into quadrants 2 and 3 — a private person involved with a public event and a public person involved with a private event. These categories are generally where discrepancies and differing choices arise, even within the same country. For example, the crime of Karst Tates on Queen’s Day in the Netherlands concerned a private person at the centre of a public event, and some Dutch news media chose to name him, while others did not.

A celebrity or public official caught engaging in domestic violence would fit into quadrant 3, public person/private event. The 2011 allegations of sexual assault filed by a hotel maid in New York against then head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, could fit in this quadrant. Many, but not all, news media in the Protector countries might ignore such a situation if it happened within their borders. But the arrest of DSK happened in New York, and the allegations made headlines around the world. Most news professionals in the Watchdog countries would not consider that public persons are entitled to privacy, nor would their courts, and part of the American coverage showed the disgraced IMF head on a “perp walk” being led from his hotel in handcuffs. This caused outrage in many parts of Europe.

The Protectors attempt to weigh what they see as public interest and relevance, not just curiosity.

As an editor, Martin Jönsson of Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet made such decisions frequently. “We recently had a local elected official who for the second time in a month was found naked and drunk in his office,” he told us. “We had to publish his name…. It would have been stupid not to have done so.”

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