In today’s media climate, where we’re so conditioned to expect to know every detail of a story, our readers are sometimes curious why we choose to omit the names of the accused in police reports.
There’s certainly a time to report every detail: when there’s a danger to the public. Perhaps when a serious or violent crime or abduction has occurred. Or when the police need our eyes to help them find a specific individual.
What’s left is a mix of lesser crimes. Many are still a danger – drunk drivers cause such senseless death, and drug traffickers have aided in seven overdoses in our town recently. One of those individuals lost their life; the others came too close.
Those people aren’t just nameless addicts; each one is someone’s child. Each one has friends, family, people who care. For that reason, it’s tempting to publish the names of their alleged dealers, and make those people face the harsh criticism of the public, and feel the contempt of their neighbours.
However, that’s exactly the reason we don’t publish them.
We’ve been hearing a lot about human rights lately, thanks to Black Lives Matter and Pride. We know we should be protected from discrimination based on the colour of our skin, our gender, sexual orientation and expression, age and ability. These are no-brainers. But we’re also free from discrimination due to our record of offences.
That’s not to say convicted criminals, even those on parole, get a free pass. Far from it; they’re barred from working in certain occupations, crossing borders, or even volunteering at their kids’ school. Mechanisms are in place to keep the public safe from these individuals.
But what about all the accused who are found innocent, or have completed their sentences? Their arrest was just step one on the long, winding road through the criminal justice system. A lot of factors can alter the story: new evidence, reduced charges, acquittals, or even plea bargains.
Although the courts assume innocence until guilt is proven, human nature can be the opposite. Without court reporting, we never hear the end of the story. The accused are forever suspended in our minds, guilty as charged. In a small town, that can carry a life sentence of stigma, which can impact employment, relationships and quality of life for years, even without a criminal record.
Unfortunately, few modern media outlets – ours included – have the resources to cover court. The result is far too many unfinished stories, and the stigma that lingers with them. Giving anonymity to the guilty is the price we’ve chosen to pay, in order to protect the integrity of the innocent.