The issue of what to withhold from stories about violent crime — victims’ names, the names of witnesses, and the like — has flustered newspaper editors since Pulitzer was a pup. A catch-all policy like “publish everything in the public record” doesn’t seem to work, because — as anybody knows — there are some crimes in which naming names can injure or endanger the victim even more than the original incident.
Most reporters might not be somebody you’d want to take home to Mother, but they aren’t heartless.
Last week, the issue came to Little Rock when a shooting suspect named in a Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article was later kidnapped and murdered. Brady Alexander, an 18-year-old Little Rock resident, had been mistakenly identified by witnesses and a later police report as the gunman in an April 16 shooting at Murray Park in Little Rock. Citing information from the police report, the Dem-Gaz published Alexander’s name in a “Police Beat” item on April 18. The next day, Alexander was kidnapped by two men, and was later found dead in southern Pulaski County (we should point out, however, that there has been no official connection made between the story that appeared and the murder of Alexander — though it would be a hell of a coincidence if there wasn’t).
Whatever you think about the Democrat-Gazette, you really can’t argue with its call here. Even though the information turned out later to be false, Alexander was named in a police report as a witness-identified suspect — information any newspaper in America would have run as a matter of course. Too, if reporters got in the business of withholding information on the basis of what terrible things might happen due to publishing a story, your daily newspaper would consist entirely of recipes (not too fattening, though!), “Happy Ads” classifieds and the comics page.
Still, the question of what to publish when the people involved might face violent retribution seems to be a sticky wicket, one that eventually got my wheels turning enough to call up Dem-Gaz Deputy Editor Frank Fellone for a chat.
Fellone said that in his experience, criminals don’t decide which crimes to commit based on articles in the morning newspaper.
“It makes a better episode of ‘Law and Order’ than it does reality,” Fellone said, “the idea that somebody would read something in the newspaper and say, ‘Doggone it, I’m going to go and shoot somebody up because of that.’ ”
As an example, he cited the case of a triple murder in Little Rock from some years back. At the time, the Dem-Gaz took heat for an article that critics said inspired the killings — a charge that Fellone said was later found to have no basis in fact. “Somebody’s going to go to trial here, and the evidence that emerges at trial will tell us a lot more than any speculation on our part right now,” he said.
Fellone said the question of when to withhold information in a news story is “simple and complicated at the same time.” The only information the D-G withholds as a matter of policy is the names of victims of sex crimes. The Brady Alexander murder will not change that, Fellone said, though he added that editors would consider police arguments for the withholding of names on an individual basis and based “on its merits.”
“We’re always trying to be thorough, complete and detailed in our news coverage,” he said. “I don’t know that this will change that.”
In other news, this week’s award for Most Unintentionally Hilarious Headline goes to D-G columnist Jay Grelen, for the topper of his Thursday, April 27, “Sweet Tea” column: “Coach still easing pain with wedgy.”
Not surprisingly, the same column also contained this week’s Sentence Which, When Taken Out of Context, Could Be Most Easily Misconstrued as Something Illegal and/or Immoral: “Soon, however, he had more sacrums than he had fists.”
Just for the record, the sacrum is the bone at the bottom of the spinal column which connects the “wings” of your pelvis … a definition that still doesn’t paint a very pretty picture.
Is it “pelvises” or “pelvii”?