Chapter 38: Ethics of reporting crime

Chapter 38: Ethics of reporting crime

In the first three chapters of this four-chapter section, we looked at the practical aspects of reporting and writing about crime. Here we discuss some of the main ethical issues of crime reporting, to keep you honest and safe.


Crime reporters face a number of ethical problems when doing their job. Perhaps the biggest problem is remembering where they belong in relation to the police, criminals and the public.

Undivided loyalty

As a journalist, your first and over-riding loyalty must be to tell your readers or listeners the truth. Sometimes the police may want you to hide the truth or alter it, to help them catch a criminal. For example, they may ask you not to publish or broadcast a story about a murder because they think the secrecy will help them catch a particular suspect. You must never take such a decision lightly. Always ask your news editor before making any agreement.

If you decide to suppress some details, make it clear to the police that your agreement only applies to specific details and only to this one occasion. You should always retain control over what you publish or broadcast. Never make up details to replace those you have agreed to take out (the police may ask you to give false information to trap a criminal). You must never lie to your readers or listeners. They must be able to trust you.

This loyalty to telling all of your audience the truth becomes most difficult for specialist reporters, who may spend a large part of their working life and free time with one set of people. Science correspondents who deal mainly with scientists may lose the ability to talk in simple terms their readers or listeners can understand. Economics reporters may find that their minds automatically focus on the financial advantages of a development project, ignoring the social costs. As a crime reporter, there is a danger that you may find yourself thinking more and more like a policeman, and less like a fair and balanced journalist.

Always remember that your job is not to catch criminals or prosecute them. The police and courts exist for that. You have a duty to help the police wherever possible, but that is not your only duty. You main duty, as we have said, is to the truth.

For the police to catch and prosecute a criminal, they have to believe that he or she is guilty. You do not have to make such a judgment. Under common law, a person is innocent until proved guilty. (For more information, see Chapter 63: Introduction to the law). If the police name a wanted man, you can quote the police chief as saying that he could be armed and dangerous, but never say that he is wanted for killing someone. The usual English phrase is "...wanted in connection with the killing of...".

Although most criminals will lie, they may not lie all the time. Some who say they are innocent may be telling the truth on this occasion. If a known member of the criminal world comes to you with a story, do not dismiss them out of hand, but be especially suspicious of what they say. Double-check and cross-check everything.

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Copycat crimes

There has been a debate for a long time over whether or not people commit crimes because they have seen similar events portrayed in the media. Although crime has existed as long as there have been laws (and long before there was even writing), there are some crimes which are obviously modelled on what the criminal has seen, heard or read. We call these copycat crimes.

Although the media might not encourage people to commit crimes, they often show how it can be done. A boy who watches a film in which a man places a poisonous snake in his enemy's bed may, if he hates his sister, go and put a snake in her bed. That would be a copycat crime.

In Chapter 61: Taste and bad taste, we explain why, in a family newspaper or programme, you should not give people exact instructions on how to commit suicide. This could be copied by a child or a person in an unstable mental state.

As a journalist, you will occasionally have to make a difficult decision about how much you tell your readers or listeners. You must tell them enough to keep them informed and help them understand why something happened, but you must not encourage copycat crimes.

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Fear and alarm

Reporting crime needs special sensitivity because it is very easy to spread fear and alarm by what you write or broadcast. You must always balance the need of your audience to be informed with your duty not to alarm them unnecessarily. You may need to warn them that there is an escaped mass murderer on the loose, but you need to be as specific as possible. If police say the killer has been seen in the Northern Province, include this detail. You will warn those people in the Northern Province to be especially careful, without alarming people elsewhere unnecessarily.

You also need to show restraint when reporting civil disturbances. A fight between four men is not a riot. If two of them are black and two white it is not a race riot. Avoid inflaming a situation which is already tense. If you report that there has been a riot between two communities, more members of those communities may join in and make matters worse. There is also the danger of encouraging sightseers, who will also make matters worse, especially for the police.

Some journalists will use dramatic language to enliven the story and add interest, but the risks are too high that they will simply encourage more of the same behaviour. There is a lot of difference between the descriptive sentence: "A bus was burnt at North Beach and a car set on fire in South Park" and the provocative sentence: "Cars and buses were set on fire across the city."

As a general principle, you will not be accused of inciting fear and alarm if you stick to the facts and report them accurately.

While on the subject of reporting riots, you must always look after your own safety. Although you may need to be close to the action to report accurately, you will not be able to tell your story if you are shot or arrested. If there is any danger that you will be attacked, arrested, shot or trampled - move.

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Releasing names

You should always check with the police before releasing the names of victims of crimes, especially when people have been killed. It is usually the job of the police to make sure that the victim's nearest relatives are told first, so that they can soften the shock.

If you cooperate with the police, they will usually cooperate with you over this. If you know the names of victims but find that relatives have not been informed yet, you can agree to withhold publishing the names on the understanding that the police tell you as soon as the relatives have been informed.

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False conclusions

You must avoid drawing false conclusions. If you only report what you know to be true and attribute all the rest, you will be safe. If you start drawing your own conclusions and laying blame, you will get into trouble.

Imagine that you arrive at the scene of a death. A man's body has been found on the pavement at the foot of a 10-storey office building. The police can tell you that he died as a result of a fall from the building. Was he pushed? Did he jump? Did he lean out to close a window and tumble to his death? The police also tell you that they are questioning a man who worked with the victim on the top floor.

Just tell the facts, do not draw conclusions. Compare the following stories:

A 23-year-old man fell to his death from an office block in the Central Business District today.   
Police believe that telephonist Andrew Waiwa fell from the top floor of the 10-storey Telecom Building in Garone Street at midday.
They say they are treating his death as suspicious and are questioning one of Mr Waiwa's colleagues about it.       
A Telecom employee pushed a colleague out of a top-floor window in a city office block today.
Telephonist Andrew Waiwa fell ten floors after being pushed out of the Telecom Building on Garone Street in the Central Business District.
Police are questioning his killer etc

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Write crime stories about people - the criminals, the police and the victims

Develop good contacts and protect them if you have to

Use your diary to keep track of likely developments in continuing cases; organise a filing system to keep your information readily available

Keep your writing simple and straightforward; avoid jargon

Make your reports more interesting with appropriate quotes or actuality; attribute all comments and attribute facts where necessary

Always work within the law

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>>go to next chapter

Index to Chapter 38
  1. Undivided loyalty
  2. Copycat crimes
  3. Fear and alarm
  4. Releasing names
  5. False conclusions
  6. To summarise
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