Sunday, May 29, 2005

NAMING NAMES. The Salem News appears to be the only newspaper on the planet that is naming both the 16-year-old suspect and the 15-year-old victim of a schoolboy-fight-gone-bad that occurred in Danvers on May 19.

Most news organizations have a policy against identifying juveniles who have been charged with a crime. Exceptions are sometimes made - usually in the case of an unusually notorious, well-publicized incident. But it's hard to see why an exception would be made in this particular case. There is considerable doubt as to what actually happened. The suspect's lawyer claims that it was in fact his client who had been subjected to repeated bullying before the incident.

The Danvers Herald has not identified either the suspect or the victim, and notes that the suspect's lawyer was upset that his client's name had been bandied about in print and on television. Clearly the print reference was to the News, because neither the Boston Globe nor the Boston Herald (sister paper to the Danvers Herald) has identified the suspect. Both Boston dailies did name the victim at the time the incident occurred. (I do not know what television stations the lawyer is referring to, but this wouldn't be the first time some of the local newscasts have played by their own rules.)

The Salem News named the suspect not only after he had been charged, but before as well. Last Wednesday, in an article I can't find online, the News reported that the suspect's family has been receiving death threats.

I can attest that the incident has been the talk of Danvers for the past week. But I'm not sure how many people would know the name of the suspect were it not for the News. In writing this item, I considered not linking to the News articles; but at this point, everyone on the North Shore already knows his name, thanks to the News.

Here's what I'd like to know: precisely what is the Salem News's policy when it comes to naming juveniles who have been charged with a crime, or who are likely to be charged with a crime - or, for that matter, who are the victims of a crime? If the standard policy is to withhold the names - as it is at 99.9 percent of newspapers - what was it about this particular incident that warranted an exception?

Bill Ketter, the editor of the Eagle-Tribune chain, which includes the Salem News, often writes columns about media ethics for the op-ed page. He ought to address the situation this week. It will be interesting to see whether he tries to justify the decision to name names in Danvers - or apologizes.


Anonymous said...

Also an interesting contrast between the two papers on the school administration's opinion of whether their responsibility stops at the school house door. If a good criminal defense lawyer can get a court to admit small-town teenage rumors as testimony, who knows what will happen? Northeastern will have some dynamite case studies this fall!

Tony said...

As a former employee of the NW unit of the Herald's CNC wing, I can comment that we published every arrest of everyone over 17-years-old. It caused a lot of conflict in some of the communities, with some of the more privileged and affluent communities believing that their children should be exempt from the "humiliation" of having their names published in the newspaper after being arrested. Strangely, it was never the humiliation of their children's alleged behavior, just the publishing of their names in the newspaper.

Anonymous said...

The May 22 edition of the Globe named the victim and his father (B2, New England In Brief).


Anonymous said...

The official Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. editorial policy is NOT to publish underage victims' names, so I'm not sure why they made an exception here. I haven't seen any internal mail indicating why they made this decision. Usually, Ketter comments on such things through interoffice mail if there are any questions.

I'm also a little surprised he didn't write in his Sunday column about their decision to name names. He usually uses that space for pseudo ombudsman-like explanation of the newspaper's editorial decisions.

Have you contacted Ketter or any of the other editors to ask why they ran these kids' names?