By: Tony Case
Panelists discuss whether a newspaper should identify
the gang and name its members in a crime story sp.
THE DETROIT NEWS doesn’t shy away from naming suspects of youth crimes and their gang affiliations. As police reporter David Grant says, “If you’ve got another John Dillinger living next door, you’re going to want to know about it.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune avoids running names of juvenile delinquents because its editors believe the youths can be rehabilitated and the publicity may negatively impact their chances at reform. The paper generally doesn’t mention gang names in stories, either.
And news managers at KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas, equate reporting gang activity with publicizing bomb threats. The coverage, they maintain, gives attention to the perpetrator and does little to benefit the public.
Representatives of these and other news organizations met last month at the Society of Professional Journalists convention in Nashville to discuss covering the increasing occurrence of adult criminality among minors and to debate the burning journalistic issue of whether to give space and airtime to fame-hungry gang members.
Gangs are not as pervasive in the Motor City as they are in other urban centers such as Chicago or Los Angeles, but the News reports as much information about them as it can round up, “because ignorance can get you killed in Detroit, or anywhere else,” Grant said.
“If an incident is gang-related, write that into the story,” he advised. “Name the gang and its location. Let the public know about the gang.”
By contrast, the Tribune won’t identify gangs in run-of-the-mill crime stories, only in larger articles that examine the dynamics of gangs, according to bureau chief Mary Elson.
The paper recently profiled a gang known as the Black Disciples, including in the coverage some of the group’s codes, prayers and other dogma. The story was “illuminating,” Elson recalled, in that “it showed how young children can find these gangs extremely alluring.”
The Tribune used to faithfully honor the wishes of police by never reporting gang names. Law enforcement officials contend that identifying gangs hinders crime fighting and encourages gangs.
But as gangs in Chicago proliferated ? at last count, police were keeping track of about 45 of them ? the paper began to look naive in not publishing their names, Elson said. In what other case, she asked, does a paper censor itself?
The News differentiates established gangs in the city, such as the Cobras and the Latin Counts, from what are essentially groups of teen-agers who dress alike and whose worst offenses are defacing public property and extorting milk money.
When asked what makes particular groups newsworthy, Grant said, “Unfortunately, their killing records.”
Elson pointed out that many people who live in the suburbs or small towns wrongly view gang and other youth crimes as exclusively urban problems.
To illustrate what one child’s death costs taxpayers, the Tribune used a story about a murdered youngster to calculate the related expenses ? police, hospital, public defense, and so on.
“Whether you think you care about children, or inner-city children, you ultimately are going to have to pay for it,” Elson remarked.
Some Tribune staffers feel for those young people who commit violent crimes, while others are unsympathetic. Regardless of one’s biases, Elson maintained, it is hard to ignore the striking similarity of the perpetrators’ backgrounds.
“It all goes back to very intractable social problems, and the point is that all these children were innocent at one time,” she said.
Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar signed a bill in August allowing law enforcement agencies to release the names of youths convicted of crimes involving guns, gangs and drugs. The Tribune has not developed a policy pertaining to the law, but Elson predicted the paper will continue to decide case-by-case whether to publish names.
The bureau chief urged caution in identifying witnesses to gang crimes or residents of areas with a heavy gang presence.
“We respect their request for anonymity and often, especially with younger subjects, do not use their names even if they don’t request it,” she related.
She also suggested that newspapers carefully select photographs to accompany stories.
The Tribune, which earned accolades last year for running a front-page photo of every child killed under violent circumstances in Chicago, recently published a picture on page one of a young boy whose friend was killed in a suspected gang-related incident. The boy’s relatives feared the publicity could harm him, but editors reasoned using the photo was acceptable because of the high profile of the case. The image conveyed the effect of a child’s death on other children, they determined.
Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel education writer Bill Hirschman wondered who journalists think they’re protecting by not revealing the names of youths who commit violent crimes.
“As a practical matter in the community, those names are well-known before your newspaper hits the street and in some cases before your broadcast hits the air,” he told SPJ members.
Columbus Dispatch police reporter Bruce Cadwallader said he has had cops tell him it is illegal to print the names of juvenile offenders, and he expressed amazement at the number of newspeople who don’t know it is their constitutional right to do so.
“Aren’t we hurting ourselves by not using the names?” he asked, adding, “If a juvenile is charged with a serious crime in my community, I don’t care ? I’m going to run his name. I’m still a little bit confused about why people in our own organizations don’t fight for more publication of juvenile crimes.”