Law & the Media in Texas — Police News Pitfalls

Police News

Pitfalls

To help identify some of the specific problems involved in the reporting, writing and editing of police stories, here is a list of troublesome areas that many times become pitfalls:

1.Using names when they should be eliminated.

3.In Texas names are usually not used until a complaint has been filed. An exception may occur when a federal complaint or complaint alleging a lesser offense has been made to get a suspect under arrest. In Texas the filling of a complaint is the first official judicial act in the criminal procedure and the first privileged procedure.

b.Usually, names of juveniles accused in crimes are not used except in sensational cases. In such cases, the district attorney’s office may obtain a court ruling declaring a juvenile an adult.

c.Names of rape victims are not used as a matter of policy. Reporters should be careful in giving general descriptions that may identify a victim indirectly.

2.Questionable sources. The danger here is in using information provided by someone who does not have first-hand information about a situation. The person providing information to reporters may or may not be held accountable for such information. The news organization will be.

3.Mistaken identity. Getting names mixed up is a common problem. Improper identification of suspects, victims and witnesses can occur. If reporters and editors will approach the story knowing the possibility of a mistake is always present, that will provide some degree of caution.

4.Using speculative information. A basic example is speculating on what police will do or even what police say they will do. A rule of thumb: avoid speculative information.

5.Presenting information as fact when it may not be. This occurs when information is used without attribution. Reporters should use unattributed information only when they know of their own knowledge that it is accurate.

6.Taking information—including names—from police without checking. The filing of complaints, addresses and previous criminal records are particular problems.

7.Not presenting the other side of a story when accusations are made. This balancing is the way to use risky material safely and ethically. When complaints have been filed, rarely is the other side available to respond. In most instances, a response is not appropriate. But, in certain instances of so-called white-collar crime, a response may not only be appropriate but necessary. In such situations, fairness may dictate offering the accused the opportunity to respond.

Police news tells us about ourselves, and how we handle police news tells us something about our journalistic ability. Ideally, police news is used to inform the public, not to aid directly in conviction. Keeping this perspective is important in handling police news effectively.

Reporting police news is difficult and potentially dangerous. But if reporters and editors are properly prepared and sufficiently cautious, mistakes will be held to a minimum.

Juveniles

In Texas, juveniles are not charged with criminal offenses upon arrest. They may be held in custody and a procedure begun by which they may be adjudged delinquent. Such a proceeding is civil, not criminal and should be reported in the same way that civil litigation is reported.

Under Texas law both males and females become adults at 17. However, after 14 a juvenile may be certified as an adult and be charged with a felony or a capital offense.

Until recently, state law forbade law enforcement personnel from revealing names of juveniles involved in crime. The legislature repealed that provision of the law as of January 1, 1996.

The attorney general was asked to clarify the situation. In an opinion in 1996, Attorney General Dan Morales said that records involving juveniles before 1996 remain confidential. But, the opinion said that the Section 58.007 of the Family Code “does not make confidential juvenile law enforcement records concerning conduct occurring on or after January 1, 1996, that are maintained by law enforcement agencies.”

The debate over whether to use the names of juveniles is one of the oldest. For the longest time news media did not reveal names of juveniles to give the young offender a second chance. But, times change.

The change in the Texas law reflects the thinking by many in law enforcement and in the legislature that in view of the increase in juvenile crime, shielding juveniles from publicity is an outdated practice.

The First Amendment grants news media the freedom to publish a wide spectrum of information, including the names of juveniles involved in crime. The pre-1996 state law never applied to the news media, only to those involved with handling juvenile offenders.

Deciding whether to name juvenile offenders remains an editorial decision.