By: Joseph J. Kolb
In November 2010, Fontana, Calif. native Jonah Jeter, 17, was traveling in a semi tractor trailer with his mother, a cross-country truck driver, and his sister. Jeter has admitted to investigators that, at a truck stop east of Gallup, N.M., he got into an altercation with a man and stabbed him to death. The case has yet to go to trial, but a District Court judge determined Jeter will be tried as an adult. The high-profile case immediately hit the media, which demonstrated no reluctance to reveal Jeter’s name.
Was it because his age was bordering on adulthood, or was it the heinous crime at the hands of an alleged drifter that made it permissible to reveal Jeter’s name in news reports?
For media outlets, the ethical quandary of naming juvenile suspects often gnaws at reporters and editors. Training dictates that, whenever possible, journalists avoid disclosing the name of a juvenile criminal suspect. This is borne out of the Code of Ethics put forth by the Society of Professional Journalists. In the subsection titled “Minimize Harm,” the SPJ advocates treating sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving respect, and to “be cautious” about identifying juvenile suspects. Whatever that means. How is caution defined? Does it mean get the name right? Or the charge? Or avoid embarrassing the suspect and the family?
No, naming a juvenile offender is not a breach of ethics. Not naming one would be, because it leaves a hole in the story and could put the public at risk. Who committed the crime? Somebody did; otherwise there wouldn’t have been a crime.
This nebulous guideline has been steeped in the Father Flanagan credo that there is no such thing as a bad kid. The thinking is that by naming juvenile offenders, the publicity may stigmatize them throughout their lives. Rather than stigmatize them, I say it can set them straight.
This still does not answer the question, which leaves newsrooms to fend for themselves and establish their own policies. Robert Dean, managing editor at The Santa Fe New Mexican, said it is a judgment call typically based on the offense, but with the growing trend of violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles, the policy seems to be more fluid.
“We don’t apply a rule; we apply judgment,” Dean said.
Dean said his newsroom examines the severity of the crime, how high profile it is, and how close the suspect is to 18 years old. While the types of cases he sees runs the gamut, Dean said his policy is weighed but not applied arbitrarily.
But with such judgment calls, troublesome, inconsistent policies can emerge. Why was the teen in this story named when the teen in that story wasn’t?
The Gallup (N.M.) Herald recently ran two stories about a pair of high school football players who were arrested within a week of each other and charged as juveniles. Both were 16 years old. The first was charged with burglarizing the home of a family he had visited on a regular basis. The second was arrested for selling narcotics agents $50 worth of marijuana.
The paper opted to run the juveniles’ names in both cases, as well as any others formally charged with crimes whose names are attainable through reliable sources. Crimes are crimes, and victims are left in the wake. It makes no difference to the homeowners whether an adult or a teen broke into their home. Their home will never be the same again. They have been violated. For parents who have to deal with a child hooked on drugs, it makes no difference the age of the person that supplied the habit.
Suspects have the criminal justice system looking out for their best interests. Who do victims have? If media sources stick to the facts of the story rather than the ramifications of using a juvenile’s name, they can find solace in the old-fashioned social value of the media — to inform the community, advocate for the victims, and possibly even prevent future incidents.
Joseph J. Kolb is editor/publisher of The Gallup Herald.