Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Use names in police stories

The warrant roundup is an annual occurrence. The marshal's office invites the media (TV and press) along for some pre-dawn raids of people with outstanding domestic abuse warrants on the Saturday before Christmas.

Since most detainees said they were innocent while being processed at a remote location, we can only assume everyone is indeed innocent of everything. However, the marshal's office still had an outstanding warrant to serve. So, this is tax dollars at work.

Before I continue, PJs mostly cover tax dollars at work. When we cover wrecks, fires and such, we focus on what the police and firefighters are doing. This is why we are there. We also cover the people affected by the event to get them help from the community. Lastly, we cover the people who may have caused the commotion in the first place (hostage takers, etc...).

With those who claimed innocence (most) during the roundup, we gave them the opportunity to give us their names so we could research their case. All those I photographed politely declined their names to me. Because 24 folks were arrested on this one day, there is no clear-cut way to get names for the people in the photos from the arrest records.

In general, whenever PJs have the names of the people in photos, they should submit them to run. In reality, editors sometimes re-write cutlines to exclude names. Editors have their own reasons, but it happens. As long as PJs do everything possible to correctly identify the people in the image, PJs have done their job.

The easiest and best way to get names is to ask the people photographed. They know the proper spelling of their own name and frequently give it to PJs. However, they aren't required to give their names and may refuse.

Next, PJs need to ask for the name of the reporting police officer. This is the officer who is designated to file the police report on the incident. The officer includes the names of all people involved in the police report.

The police report is available under open records. Police departments can delay reporting, but often they'll work with local newspapers (they want the "Officer of the Year" banquet covered). Either the PJ or the police beat reporter can get the names from the police report.

If the incident (wreck or arrest) involves one person, it's easy to identify the person in the photo. If the incident involves two people of different sexes it's also easy to identify the people. Beyond this point, it often becomes too difficult to clearly differentiate folks and a generic cutline is required. NEVER guess who's who.

Before leaving the newsroom, it's good to know the policy of each newspaper. These policies should be written into the newsroom guidelines. It's a clear line about when names are used and when they are not.

For example, most newspapers don't publish the names of living juvenile victims in criminal stories. However, they might run the names of juveniles who were arrested while covered in blood and holding a knife over their parents. Even then, the newspaper probably still has a team of lawyers look at the story and surrounding facts.

Likewise, suicides are typically not reported unless they were public in some way or part of a homicide-suicide.

While covering the scene, it sometimes becomes obvious no names are going to be available. Then, it's often best to make unnamed people the direct objects in images rather than the subject. I know, this is a writers strategy, but it works visually as well.

For example: Officer Bob Smith handcuffs a suspect.

In the example, the officer is the subject while the suspect is the direct object. Consider the options PJs have to make this image. Likewise, PJs might invoke the 6th (people aren't individually identified in images with more than five people). Both approaches solve the problem.

Enough for now,

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