Arresting photograph reveals suspects

The arrests at the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge not only made interesting news, they also raised a question of journalistic ethics and Daily policy.
The April 23 front page story, “Undercover motel raid nets five narcotics arrests,” was accompanied by a photograph of two of the handcuffed suspects being escorted out of the motel by police. One of the suspects was looking directly into the camera and was clearly identifiable by anyone who knew him. The other suspect’s image was slightly blurred, but he was also recognizable. However, none of the men arrested were identified by name in the story itself.
The following day, the Daily story, “Raid arrestees appear in court today,” followed up on the arrests and reported that no charges had yet been filed.
In the front page story, an editor inserted a paragraph which read, “The Minnesota Daily has chosen not to publish the names of the arrestees unless they are charged.”
A Daily reader who wrote to me concerning this photograph wondered if, given the Daily’s statement in the April 24 story, the men pictured were not those who had been arrested.
“It seems a bit hypocritical,” he wrote.
When I asked for comments or explanation from Daily staffers, senior reporter Joe Carlson said that it was unlikely that people would remember the suspect’s face if they saw him on the street. Printing a visual image of a person is a lot less intrusive than printing a name, from which readers could find out much more information.
“I would say the photo was a pretty mild form of identification, mild enough to slip under the radar of our policy to not name arrestees until they are charged,” Carlson said.
News editor Sarah Hallonquist said the photograph was chosen by the photo editor and run by the editor in chief, who approved it.
R. Scott Rogers, editor in chief, explained that the value of the photograph outweighed the possibility that suspects would be identified by people who didn’t know them. If people did know the suspects, it was probable that they would have recognized them from the text of the story itself.
Rogers did acknowledge that time was a factor, saying that if the photo had come in at 4 p.m. instead of 11 p.m. Daily editors would have had more time to talk about the ethical issues involved.
But given the same circumstances, Rogers said, the Daily staff would have made the same decision.
There is tremendous pressure to make decisions quickly on stories that come in late, as this one did. The police raid on the motel occurred at approximately 8:30 p.m., a full hour and a half after the regular deadline for Daily stories. Reporters and editors quickly put the story together before the paper was sent to the presses in Shakopee. The Daily staff performed superbly in this situation, but I agree with the reader; an error in judgement was made.
The photograph of the suspects was visually exciting and told a great story, but printing it was wrong. If the Daily’s policy is that suspects will not be identified, then it should cover printing photographs of suspects as well as printing their names.
Withholding the names of suspects until charges are filed is a good policy which many media organizations have, but not all follow. Richard Jewell was virtually tried and convicted by the press of the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta without any charges ever being filed against him. Major news outlets paid for their mistake in that case and should be less eager to rush to publicize names of suspects in the future.
But the question remains of whether or not including Daily policy decisions in a story is appropriate. Associate editor Jim Martyka says it is.
Daily readers expect as much detail as possible in the newspaper, Martyka said, and when information is deliberately withheld, the Daily needs to explain why. While journalists may know that not printing the names of suspects until charges are filed is a common policy, the average reader might not, he said.
Inserting a statement of Daily policy in the middle of a story is distracting and self-serving. I’ve seen it in other newspapers and found it just as self-congratulatory. If editors feel a need to explain policy, that’s what editorial notes are for. They should put one at the beginning or the end of a story if necessary, but they should not interrupt an article to justify a policy decision.
My suggestion is that the Daily re-examine their policy on identifying suspects who have not been charged. If it is a valid policy, and I think it is, then it should apply to all forms of identification, including photographs.

Melodie Bahan’s column appears on alternate Mondays. She welcomes comments vie e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.