Archive for the ‘Crimes’ Category


Ignoring a Problem Doesn’t Make It Go Away

image1A growing list of organizations say journalists should omit the names and images of gunmen in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.


The Brady Campaign, which works to prevent gun violence, launched on Wednesday the “Zero Minutes of Fame” tool for Google’s Chrome internet browser. The tool, which is accompanied by an ad and a petition directed at the media, replaces the names and faces of mass shooters in news stories with the names and images of their victims.

The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.

Other organizations like No Notoriety promote a similar message, which is supported by the Society’s professional chapter in Florida.

While well-meaning, these initiatives are based on anecdotal and preliminary evidence, and may result in unintended consequences. The goal should be more responsible reporting – not less reporting.

Instead of completely omitting the names and images of gunmen, advocates should challenge news organizations to be especially cautious when reporting on breaking news – including mass shootings. News organizations should shun speculation and report verified facts. Additionally, news organizations should be judicious in how the images of mass shooters are portrayed to readers and viewers.

The Society encourages these practices through its Code of Ethics.

Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious. Typically, ignoring a problem isn’t a successful solution.

The science underpinning the movement is also far from conclusive. The most notable study supporting the theory that mass shootings are “contagious” was published online in July. The study, which was published by researchers from Arizona State University, suggests that 20 to 30 percent of shootings involving four or more victims are tied to a previous mass shooting. The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.

In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all  facts.

People have a right to information – whether joyful or unpleasant. Providing people with accurate information is the foundation of journalism and democracy.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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The Other Side: Rolling Stone’s Note

A screenshot of the editor's note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

A screenshot of the editor’s note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

The managing editor of Rolling Stone added an editor’s note earlier today to the magazine’s bombshell campus rape story that was published online November 19. The story described a 2012 gang rape of a woman called Jackie at a party in the house of a University of Virginia fraternity.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” writes Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, in the note, which does not specify the discrepancies.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post  published a story today detailing its own investigation into the events described in the original Rolling Stone report.

“Several key aspects of the account of a gang rape offered by a University of Virginia student in Rolling Stone magazine have been cast into doubt, including the date of the alleged attack and details about an alleged attacker, according to interviews and a statement from the magazine backing away from the article,” writes Post reporter T. Rees Shapiro.

Many news organizations and journalists are calling the Rolling Stone editor’s note added to the story a retraction. The magazine does not use that specific word, however. Instead it’s up to the reader to proceed with the caveat that some of the 9,000-or-so-word story may be inaccurate.

Dana emphasizes in his note that the magazine decided to honor the source’s “request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Some journalists experienced with reporting on rape are quoted as saying it may be acceptable to not reach out to the accused in some cases.

Most – if not all – sets of journalism standards emphasize the special care and compassion reporters must take when dealing with certain sources. The Society’s Code of Ethics is no different. “Journalists should use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent,” says the Code.

Ethics and responsible reporting are balancing acts, however. In this case, it’s easy to argue the seriousness of the crimes described in the Rolling Stone story warranted reaching out to all accused parties.

Additionally, investigations are typically not considered complete until all information within a story is thoroughly examined and substantiated. As I’ve been taught, sources and subjects should not be surprised when an investigation is published – it’s how a reporter knows all involved parties had the opportunity to have their responses included.

Perhaps the inability to reach out to the accused meant Jackie should not be included in the magazine’s story.

The Post also reports Jackie asked be left out of the Rolling Stone story altogether. The Columbia Journalism School’s Darte Center for Journalism and Trauma says journalists should respect an interviewee’s right to say no. The Center offers journalists a comprehensive sexual violence reporting tip sheet , which can be found here.

Obviously, there are exceptions to most rules in journalism. Still, Rolling Stone and its editorial team owed – and still owes – its sources, subjects and readers thorough reporting and verification of whatever information made its way to publication.

What’s especially upsetting about today’s development is that the controversy created by poor editorial management overshadows a very real problem. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) cites a December 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report that found “a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.”

Instead of those rapes being the focus of public discussion, the conversation turns to the decisions made by a magazine. The investigation into the story is likely to only create a more traumatic experience for Jackie, too. Her friends tell the Post that “they believe something traumatic happened to her.”

Rolling Stone’s Dana took a step in the right direction on Twitter earlier today, when he wrote the “failure is on us – not on her.”

Ultimately, whatever doubt Rolling Stone has in its story is its own creation – not that of sources, subjects or readers. As a result, it’s up to the magazine to make this situation right.

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