Should the Media Withhold Accurate Information?

In my latest media column for the Rocky Mountain News, I suggest the answer is "yes." A case in point is the recent controversy over the Boulder Daily Camera publishing a picture of a man arrested for a notorious local crime, even though publication of the photo could taint the line-up identification made by witnesses, thereby ruining the criminal case.

More broadly, I suggest that the media should not become a de facto accomplice of people who murder to achieve publicity--such as school shooters, or assassins of celebrities. Put the photos of the victims, not the killers, on the front page. And minimize use of the killer's name.

Finally, the media and the public should begin a dialogue for how the media can avoid serving as a force multiplier for terrorists by making terrorists seem more powerful than really are.

Are there really valid legal arguments on both sides of the photo-publication case? It seems like a very, very clear prior restraint to me. I'm still surprised it ever got to that point - if I were the editor, a simple phone call from the police asking me to hold off on publishing the photo would have been sufficient, under the circumstances.

The broader question is more complicated. When I read about terrorists attacks, it makes me fearful to a degree. Presumably it makes some people more fearful than me, and some may not care at all. But how can anyone decide what the "appropriate" level of public concern is following a terrorist attack? More media coverage may lead to greater public fear of terrorism, but is that de facto a good thing or bad thing? If media coverage is reduced for the sole purpose of making the public less fearful, is that more calculating than we want to be as a society?
7.18.2005 6:59pm
Nowhere in the suggestion that media should consider more than simple sensationalism (which I think was the orignal point) means that if the Media considers X too, that thereby "media coverage is reduced for the sole purpose of [x]". Sure, everyone can make easy decisions in a simple unidimensional world.

Media makes many judgements every day. Some things go on the front page. Some things don't. Any claim, even if only implied, that it is not calculating, it nonsense.

I think the media would be more responsible if they considered the after-effect of their publications beyond mere same-day sales. I think acting more responsibly would add to the respect the public feels for them. I think that gaining this respect would stem the erosion of [newspaper] sales.

All else is the Flynt/Hustler argument. "I should publish this because I can"
7.18.2005 8:14pm
Modulo extremely limited exceptions (such as for proper police work, about which I believe David is correct), I tend to find most calls for "restraint", "responsibility" or "dialogue" like this antithetical to a free society.

We need more and better information, not journalists attempting not to frighten the horses masses.
7.18.2005 9:23pm
Ignorant Journalist (mail):

More broadly, I suggest that the media should not become a de facto accomplice of people who murder to achieve publicity--such as school shooters, or assassins of celebrities. Put the photos of the victims, not the killers, on the front page. And minimize use of the killer's name.

Emphasizing the victims is a great suggestion. Minimizing the use of the killer's name seems less so. I assume you posit this as a preventative measure - those who would kill for fame might not if that fame wouldn't follow. Two points:

1) I'd guess most such killers (the obvious category being Columbine-style school shooters) don't kill out of a desire for fame in the Paris Hilton-lots-of-people-know-my-name-so-I-must-be-important sense. They fame they seek seems to be more akin to a traditional terrorist's fame, fame of the crime, not the name. Besides Osama bin Laden and Mousassoui, how many 9-11 hijackers/conspirators can you name? Probably none. Did they get their (demented) point across? You bet. They don't care if you know who they are, just what they did. In addition, there are so many other factors at play in the potential perpetrator's mind, conscious (like revenge) or not (like a mental disorder), that denying them fame seems unlikely to affect their decision.

2) The public does have some need for haivng the killer's name available to them. That's the only way anyone could challenge the media's characterization of the person and their character traits, motives, etc. Without a name, whatever the "official account" of the incident will stand unchallenged. Imagine if Lee Harvey Oswald's name was never publicized so no independent investigations or alternate scenarios of who he was and why he shot Kennedy could be put forward. Whatever you think of the "official account" of that assasination, it is a good thing that we have a had a public debate (no matter how foolish at times) over the matter.
7.18.2005 10:20pm
Tony (mail):
I have to say, your attitude is very Canadian. Judges in my home country often issue press gags for various reasons, most of them justified along the lines you suggest here. There is a terrible hue and cry each time, and even Americans get into the act - witness Richard Stallman's campaign against the Canadian judge who ordered that copies of the new Harry Potter book sold, accidentally, in advance of the release date be returned to the store and not read.
7.19.2005 12:46am
trotsky (mail):
The court order is, it seems, a plain and plainly unconstitutional case of prior restraint.

The Boulder PD's release of the photo is a plane case of police incompetence.

And most editors I've worked with would have gladly, or at worst grumblingly, acceded to an earnest request for a few days' delay from a DA who wasn't a habitual incompetent. That makes the court order just strange.

On the other hand, since we publish instantly these days -- the Internet and all -- the photo had already been published by the time they enjoined print publication. That raises another wrinkle.
7.19.2005 1:37am
Technology reduced the cost of publishing/broadcasting to the top of the slippery slope/race to the ethical bottom when CNN went live. I'd still believe myself sufficiently informed if I knew nothing of the private lives of my elected officials, and never saw the infamous crimes and criminals of the last 20 years until after the trials and funerals were done. But the media are selling soap, not useful information.
7.19.2005 11:11am