I’d like to elaborate on our policy on identifying crime suspects, which was a Hot Type topic in your May 24 issue.
Our policy states, “We identify crime suspects only if they are charged, or we know they are about to be charged, or if there is some other compelling reason to do so.” The latter aspect of the policy allows for unusual circumstances, such as, for example, if a political figure was under investigation; but for the most part, the policy hangs on whether authorities have made a determination to file charges.
This is the policy we used in deciding not to identify Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympic bombing case. It also is the policy we used in deciding to identify Juan Luna and James Degorski in the Brown’s murder case.
There is no contradiction between those decisions. While there was a storm of attention on Jewell, we had no way of knowing if he would be charged and therefore did not identify him. In the Luna and Degorski case, we knew for a fact they were going to be charged and therefore we did identify them. Both decisions were right, journalistically and ethically.
As a newspaper, we have a keen sensitivity to the impact of what we publish. We believe it is our job to make the world a little bit better place. That philosophy guides our policies and our decision making. We strive very hard not to be intrusive. We use care to avoid harming people unnecessarily. We make decisions related to this virtually every day, and as anyone who has been in a newsroom knows, usually these are fairly subtle decisions. We do all of this while at the same time working hard to inform our readers as well as we can.
This is our mission. My point is not to try to lay claim that we somehow are different because of it. It is the mission most newspapers have. My only point is to say that we firmly believe in it, genuinely and deeply. I am somewhat puzzled by criticism of our decision on Luna and Degorski. I would understand it had we turned out to be wrong. But we weren’t wrong. We had an obligation to be right, and we wouldn’t have gone to print with it unless we were certain that we were. And once we knew, we had another obligation: to inform our readers.