Monday, July 18, 2005

News Media Code of Ethics

United States Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs - Parnership for Safer Communities

Chapter 18: The News Media's Coverage of Crime and Victimization - December 28, 2004


Victim service providers should encourage media professionals, both print and broadcast, to adopt a code of ethics specific to their coverage of crime and victimization. Such a code can serve as a basic ethical foundation from which difficult decisions can be made, frequently within very short time periods.

The most comprehensive written policy on ethical considerations affecting journalists, including those affecting crime victims, was developed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1992. In the sensitive introduction to its "Guidelines on Privacy Issues," the following guiding statement was made:

As we consider the policies that will best serve the Post-Dispatch, we should bear in mind some broad principles:

The perceptions and perspectives of reporters and editors on the one hand, and readers and other members of the public on the other, are different. The news professionals are motivated chiefly by a desire to get the news and publish it. The others are more likely to react personally, imagining how they would feel as the subject of a story. In weighing matters of privacy, perhaps some effort should be made to bring that personal perspective into the equation.

Major changes should be approached with caution. The wind may seem to be blowing very strongly in one direction today, but could shift direction tomorrow.

No policy will cover every eventuality. The policy here enunciated (in the Guidelines on Privacy Issues) includes many exceptions, and must be augmented by the constant application of fairness, common sense, reasoned judgment, and a degree of compassion by reporters and editors all along the line.

When victim advocates consider proposing a code of ethics to media professionals, the following issues should be seriously considered.

The news media should--

  • Present details about a crime in a fair, objective, and balanced manner.

  • Recognize the importance of publishing or broadcasting information that can contribute to public safety and, at the same time, balance this need with the victim's need for privacy.

  • Respect the privacy of individuals who choose to refrain from dealing with the media or who choose to address the media through a spokesperson of their choice.

  • Provide a balanced perspective relevant to a criminal act that reflects the concerns of the victim and offender.

  • Never report rumors or innuendoes about the victim, the offender, or the crime unless such information has been verified by reliable sources.

  • In crimes other than homicide, identify the victim by age and area where the crime occurs, omitting street addresses and block numbers.

  • Refrain from using information gained from private conversations of victims or their relatives who are in shock or distraught.

  • Identify witnesses only when they volunteer to be named, and when there is clearly no danger that can be predicted through their identification by the media.

  • Never publish the identity of a sexual assault victim without his or her prior consent, regardless of whether the case is in the criminal or civil courts.

  • Never publish the identity of a child victim (or alleged child victims).

  • Never identify alleged or convicted incest offenders when such actions could lead to the identification of the victim.

  • In cases of kidnapping where it is determined that the victim has been sexually assaulted, stop identifying the victim by name once a sexual assault has been alleged.

  • Never identify the names of victims of scams or other crimes that tend to humiliate or degrade the victim without the victim's prior consent.

  • Refrain from photographing or broadcasting images that portray personal grief and/or shock resulting from a criminal act.

  • Never publish photographs or broadcast images that could place the subject in danger.

  • Refrain from showing photographs or broadcast images of deceased victims, body bags, or seriously wounded victims.

  • Never publish photographs or broadcast images of funerals without the surviving family members' prior consent.

  • Refer to drunk driving incidents as "crashes" or "crimes," not accidents, regardless of whether or not the use of alcohol has been determined as a factor.

  • Approach the coverage of all stories related to crime and victimization in a manner that is not lurid, sensational, or intrusive to the victim and his or her family


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