Crime Coverage Guidelines

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As crime soars across the United States, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) issues new newsroom guidelines for covering crime, with four key areas of consideration.

Not only rising gun violence, but a wave of “smash and grab” store invasions by mobs of thieves present challenges to the nation’s media to report crimes ethically.

“If the last couple of years have taught journalists anything, it’s that great care and considered judgment must be used when making decisions about how to cover crime,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA executive director and chief operating officer on its website. “More than ever before, reporters and news managers should be hypersensitive to societal and other equally important concerns. These new guidelines will help them do that.”

Key areas of concern are mugshots or other images provided by law enforcement, descriptions of suspects or persons of interest, reporting the names of suspects before they are charged and having in-house guidelines for publishing digital content.

RTDNA suggests considering ways to update or remove digital archives when charges are dropped or for other reasons, including passage of time.

Nationally, preliminary data for 2021 show violence crime rising, with homicides up by nearly 30% in 2020. Overall violence and assaults also increased during a surge in police officers leaving law enforcement.

Chicago is an example of how this trend translates locally. Through Dec. 14, 2021, the city recorded 775 homicides, which is 4% higher than the year before, and a staggering 61% over the 479 murders during the same period in 2019. At least 4,328 people were shot in Chicago this year, compared with 4,013 in 2020 and 2,556 in 2019. Carjackings were up 31% to 1,707.

Rising crime and “skyrocketing” commercial property taxes trouble the city’s business leaders, especially crime, said Jack Lavin, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Chicago’s business community, he said, is clamoring for a “strategy for the short and medium term for how we’re going to reduce retail theft, carjackings, shootings and who is prosecuted.”

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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