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Monday, July 26, 2021

Explained: Why The Associated Press will not name suspects in minor crimes

Because of the ubiquity of search engines and easy access to archived news stories, there has been a debate in the Western media over naming suspects in cases where trials are ongoing.

Written by Mehr Gill | Chandigarh |
Updated: July 1, 2021 7:32:26 am
Handcuffs are used to secure a fence outside the police station in Brooklyn Center, Minn. (The New York Times: Victor J. Blue, Representational)

The Associated Press (AP), the widely respected 175-year-old American non-profit news agency whose feed is published by more than 15,000 news outlets and business around the world, has announced that it will no longer name suspects or publish their photographs in minor crime stories.

This, the AP said, was because stories have a long “afterlife” on the Internet, and the news agency is not able to follow up on each one of them to check if the initial charges brought by law enforcers were maintained, dropped, or reduced.

The AP’s vice-president for standards, John Daniszewski clarified that the “policy of not identifying suspects by name applies to minor crime briefs” — the agency “will continue to identify suspects by name in stories on significant crimes, such as murder, that would merit ongoing news coverage”. In these cases, Daniszewski said, “naming a suspect may be important for public safety reasons”.

Why the decision matters

As the AP pointed out, what happens if the suspect is eventually acquitted but reports about their involvement in crime can still be found on the Internet? How detrimental could this be to these individuals when they finally try to get on with their lives, maybe look for a job or other association with individuals or companies?

Because of the ubiquity of search engines and easy access to archived news stories, there has been a debate in the Western media over naming suspects in cases where trials are ongoing.

The AP has said that going forward it will evaluate whether a minor crime is worthy of a report, and whether distributing it would be useful to “our members and customers”. For stories “in which there is little chance AP will provide coverage beyond the initial arrest”, the agency will not identify the suspects, it has said.

Also, Daniszewski has said, the agency “will stop publishing stories driven mainly by a particularly embarrassing mugshot”, and that it will no longer “publish such mugshots solely because of the appearance of the accused”.

A growing concern

The Boston Globe announced earlier this year that it was “working to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives”.

The newspaper has started a “Fresh Start Initiative” through which people can appeal their presence in older stories. Through this process, older stories may be updated or republished with updates, or removed from Internet archives.

In the Indian context

There have been a large number of cases of so-called media trials in which accused persons ‘convicted’ in noisy television studios have subsequently been let off by police or acquitted by courts, but who have had to unfairly carry the stigma for years. Conviction rates in the most serious of alleged crimes have often been low, and concerns such as those aired by the AP have begun to be voiced in India as well.

There have been a number of pleas in courts seeking restraints on reporting of cases — and judges have expressed concern over media trials as well as some specific practices such as parading the accused before reporters and photographers.

In one recent example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court observed in November 2020 that “by producing the victims and suspects before the media, the police not only violates the fundamental rights of the suspect as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India but also encourages the media trials. It is true that a general public is entitled to know about the progress in an investigation, but producing the suspects or victims before the media has no foundation under any statutory provision of law including Cr.P.C.”.

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