When, if ever, should a news organization identify the victim of a slaying before authorities have released the name?
Corey Hutchins of Columbia Journalism Review raises those issues in an examination of last week’s coverage of the murder-suicide of a University of South Carolina professor and his wife. Hutchins reported on reaction to the decision by The State to identify the murder victim, citing unnamed sources, before the coroner was releasing the identity.
I haven’t been able to find the version that reported the victim’s name. Clicking various links from The State’s Twitter account, I believe the running main story of the shooting was updated later with the coroner’s announcement. I’ll invite editors and reporters from The State to elaborate on their decision if they wish.
Spoiler alert: I’m not going to say whether I think The State made the right call. Instead, I am going out run through ethical factors I think a journalist or news organization should consider in deciding whether to identify victims of violence before authorities are willing to identify them. (I may change my mind later, and say whether I think The State made the right call, if journalists there educate me about what they knew, considered and decided on some or all of the factors I suggest you consider.)
The situation can become a classic journalism ethics decision, with strong reasons to consider on both sides, conflicting ethical principles and no easy right-or-wrong answers. I think you need to weigh the reasons to publish the names and the reasons to delay publication of the names, then decide either which argument has the strongest overall case or which argument has a single reason so strong that it should override all other arguments.
Reasons to publish the name
You absolutely know for sure
All considerations stop right here if your certainty is less than 100 percent. Did a cop tell you? Not strong enough. Cops’ initial, unofficial information is often wrong. If I’m going to proclaim a person as dead before an official announcement, I need the highest certainty about any fact that I’d ever publish, with the possible exception of accusing someone of a crime before he or she has been charged.
Did a family member confirm that officials are informing family members? Did you see a document that you can’t publish? Did you see the body yourself and recognize personally, or see identification such as a nametag? Did eyewitnesses such as students or faculty members who know the victim confirm the identification? (The witnesses may not be able to confirm the death, but if authorities are confirming the death but not releasing identification, you may decide this is absolute. But beware of identification confusion if multiple victims are involved; witnesses could be identifying a victim who is still alive.) Did a neighbor who was present confirm to you that police notified family members?
Before you start weighing the other factors, you need to be absolutely certain on the identification. Here’s the test I would use in deciding whether you are absolutely certain of your information: If you’re wrong, are you ready to sit face-to-face with supposed victim or the spouse, children or parents of the person and explain why you thought you were certain and why you thought it was important to announce that the person was dead?
It’s important to note here that The State was correct in its identification, so the other factors come into play in making a decision.
The name is already circulating
A longtime fact of crime and disaster reporting has always been that victims’ names start circulating by word of mouth before officials and journalists announce and report them.
In the verification scenario above, the witness, friend or neighbor who learns of a death and tells you doesn’t stop telling others just because you are still trying to nail the facts down to absolute certainty. In many cases, it’s not like you pried a secret loose from this person. You found and interviewed a blabbermouth. This person has always spread the word in personal conversation and by telephone, and now may be spreading the word by text, email, social media and other digital means.
I would argue that extensive circulation of a fact in private circles or even publicly on social media is not a strong reason to go ahead and publish in professional media. It certainly is not a valid reason to override or relax your standard of being absolutely certain. We’ve always been scooped some by the grapevine. But the grapevine has no reputation for credibility and suffers no harm if it’s wrong.
Keep in mind, also, that all social media accounts are not created equal. A tweet from a student whose name and identification are not clear in the Twitter profile carries an entirely different weight from a clearly identified relative or colleague of the professor explicitly announcing the death and circumstances (and how they learned the news) in a tweet or Facebook post.
By the way, if a name is circulating on social media, I think it’s OK to acknowledge that and explain why you aren’t identifying it yet: “Social media reports have included a name of the shooting victim. We are not publishing that name until we can verify it and until family members have been notified” (or whatever reasons you have decided not to publish). This tells people, yeah, we know, but we have ethical and accuracy considerations here. It’s never a bad idea to remind readers and viewers of your standards.
Misinformation is circulating
I view this as a more urgent reason for identifying a person (if you’re certain of your facts) than if the grapevine is circulating the correct information. If the person whose name is circulating is actually still alive (perhaps injured or not even involved) and you’ve verified that, I can see a reason to clarify that that person is OK, whether you identify the actual victim or not.
If the victim has a common name (especially if someone well-known shares the name and social media users are eulogizing someone who’s actually still alive), the misinformation might raise the urgency of reporting and clarifying who really died, even if authorities are not ready to announce.
I don’t think professional media are responsible for misinformation circulating in social media (unless we started it or passed it along), so I don’t think we have to identify a dead person just to correct misinformation elsewhere. But I think it’s a valid factor to consider.
You know authorities delay announcements
I don’t think news organizations should routinely defer to local authorities on the timing of news announcements. My default setting here is to support journalists who want to report news faster than authorities want to announce it, though some of the reasons I’ll discuss shortly for withholding information might override that default setting in this situation.
Every media organization has a different relationship with local authorities: police, sheriffs, fire departments, coroners and others. Perhaps you know that a coroner likes to announce details of investigations live on the local news, and a cop you trust says they have already reached all the family members. That’s an entirely different situation from if a coroner (or sheriff or whoever) you trust tells you that the victim’s parents are on an airplane that should be landing in an hour. Most journalists who believe in minimizing harm (more on that shortly) would rather have the parents learn from the officers who will be meeting the plane than from media reports they see on their phones when they land.
What authorities tell you in this situation and how they have behaved in the past are valid factors to consider as you decide when and whether to identify a victim.
Seek truth and report it
Every journalism ethics code or guideline that I know of urges us to report the truth. Who is the first of the 5Ws that are the core of good journalism. So our default setting as journalists is to report newsworthy names as we identify and verify them. You need good reasons not to report newsworthy facts, such as a murder victim’s name.
So I’m going to come down on the side of publishing a name that I’ve verified, unless I have a good reason to wait.
Reasons to delay publishing a name
Despite my default setting of reporting names, this particular situation presents several valid considerations for delaying (usually not long) publication of the name.
The stakes are high if you’re wrong
I repeat myself here, but it really has to start with accuracy on both sides of this consideration.
If you misidentify the professor who’s going to be hired as the new dean of a medical school or journalism school or whatever, your error is embarrassing. But all you cause is some temporary elation or disappointment, if the professor and other candidates and his or her friends even believe your report (the professor and other candidates probably already know).
But a false report of a death can cause profound grief, including perhaps triggering stress-related health problems. The dean error becomes a joke after the initial surprise passes. The misidentified murder victim defines your news brand for the rest of people’s lives. They remember you with bitterness and contempt, and they share those feelings with other people when they mention your organization. Years later, discussion of your error will trigger angry reactions and bitter memories that your very best journalism will never overcome with these people.
The stakes are even higher in a murder-suicide, as The State was reporting about. If you’ve already reported that the case is a murder-suicide, especially if you’ve reported that the shooter was a spouse, you are identifying not only a victim, but a murderer. If you botch this identification, you may have misidentified a living person as a murderer.
Here is a situation where accurate information or misinformation circulating in social media could become important context for your identification: If the name is not yet circulating in social media, but the fact that it was a murder-suicide involving spouses, is on social media, your misidentification of the victim spouse could be a harmful mistake to the innocent spouse. Even if your own reports have not yet reported that this was a murder-suicide, or reported that fact but not that the killings involved spouses, the social-media reports are part of the context where people will read your identification of the murder victim.
Does the family know?
The classic dilemma of journalism ethics comes when the principles of reporting the truth and minimizing harm come into conflict. Those remain the first two core principles of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and they come into conflict on this decision: To report the truth, you identify the victim; to minimize harm, you wait until family members have been notified. But how long do you wait? When is it OK to report the truth?
I think close family members should not learn about someone’s death from a news report. I think that is a cruel experience that we should avoid, and I think minimizing that harm justifies delays in reporting the identity of a victim of violence, disaster or accident. We should allow time for police, military officers, pastors, coroners and family members to tell the spouses, parents, siblings and children about deaths before we report them.
That process often moves quickly in the age when most of those people have cell phones or have close relatives with cell phones. But sometimes people are traveling. I have tried to reach members of my large family with news of a loved one’s death (one was traveling internationally one time), and I didn’t connect with everyone immediately. On the other hand, the family member who was traveling internationally was an uncle of the deceased. I don’t think it would have been as devastating for him to learn from a news report as it would for a parent, child, spouse or sibling. And besides, I was still able to reach him pretty quickly.
If you know from a family member or someone in authority that immediate family have been notified, but they’re trying to reach some distant relatives, that’s a different decision than not knowing who’s been notified or specifically knowing that the family has not been able to reach a parent, spouse, sibling or child who is traveling or otherwise unreachable.
Your minimize-harm imperative also lightens if the family starts spreading the word publicly. If family members have started to announce the death on Facebook, or if a funeral home post a death notice for the person, it’s reasonable to argue that the word is getting out, and you don’t have to wait for a green light from the coroner.
How can you attribute?
My willingness to identify a murder victim who hasn’t been identified by authorities will be much higher if I can attribute the name to named sources.
If a brother confirms for the record that family members have been identified, I have credibility that strengthens my report and outweighs the coroner’s reason to wait (not to mention helping on the minimize-harm front). If a faculty colleague found the body or was later interviewed by police, who confirmed the identification in the interview, and I can name the colleague, my report has credibility that might override some other reasons not to publish.
If I’m publishing based on an unnamed cop, I at least want to identify my source as a police officer, but the inability to name the source is a huge obstacle for me. An unnamed relative that I can identify as a relative is better than just “a source who was informed by police.” Sometimes a factor that bolsters your confidence in the accuracy of a story can still hurt the credibility because you can’t use names. If I’m publishing based on a funeral director who has been contacted by the family or authorities, that’s an excellent source who might bolster my confidence that the name is accurate. But if the funeral director can’t let me publish his or her name or even profession, vagueness of my reference to the source hurts the credibility of my story.
I think consideration of unnamed sources must take into account your organization’s policies and practices regarding unnamed sources: Do the value of the news and the source’s reason for not going public outweigh the credibility loss to this particular story and the larger credibility loss of adding one more story to the stream of unnamed sources your publication cites?
The news will come out soon anyway
In most cases where you would identify a victim before authorities would announce it, you aren’t making the decision where you justify use of unnamed sources based on the public interest. Good watchdog news organizations publish lots of information that authorities don’t want us to publish, sometimes based on unnamed sources. And part of the justification for using the unnamed sources is that we can’t get the information any other way and that this is important information that the public needs to know.
But in the case of beating authorities to the punch on announcing the identification of a murder victim, the public will get the information shortly anyway. We’re only talking about when the public knows, not if.
Weighing the factors
I always start with a default setting of publishing verified facts in news stories unless I have a good reason not to. Unless you totally reject the ethical value of minimizing harm, the process of notifying family members of a person’s death gives me a good reason to delay announcing the name. That shifts my considerations back to whether I have more good reasons to publish the name. Key questions in that consideration:
- Does something in the social media/word of mouth spreading of the news justify publication (a mistaken identity that we can correct or a family announcement on social media might be examples)?
- Do I know that the family has been notified and the authorities are waiting for other reasons?
- Can I name my sources?
- If I’m wrong, can I justify my decision to a misidentified victim and his/her family members?
I can’t say that I would never identify a murder victim before authorities are ready to announce the identification, but I think it would take extraordinary circumstances to justify scooping authorities on that name for a few hours.
Update: I sent this to Mimi for feedback and published right away because it was already getting pretty late in the afternoon. She made some good editing suggestions that didn’t change the substance (but shortened and clarified some sentences). I haven’t bothered to note where I made those changes, because I thought that would muddy the clarity that I think they helped add.
MItch Pughs’s view from Charleston
Feb. 10 update: I invited response as well from Mitch Pugh, a friend from our Iowa days who is now editor of the Post and Courier in Charleston, another South Carolina newsroom where I was sure they would be covering the story as well and watching The State’s story closely. Here’s Mitch’s response:
It’s an interesting topic, and I think your blog post nails it. I did a study several years ago for APME on credibility issues surrounding breaking news online and the key takeaway for me was to make sure you have guidelines that assist you and a clear process by which you make such decisions. One that includes as many voices as possible.
I obviously don’t know all of the facts, but I believe The State was weighing many competing, complicated factors as editors often do in these cases. Because this case involved a college campus and generated a significant amount of confusion and concern, and because there were wild rumors circulating on social media and elsewhere, I am inclined to believe they published in an effort to tamp down those rumors. There are serious journalists working at The State, and I am confident they deliberated as carefully as one can in a breaking news situation before making this decision.
I can tell you our policy is that we must have two credible off-the-record sources with direct knowledge (or other supporting information/documentation) before we will print anything attributed to anonymous sources, especially in a breaking news situation. If we were to publish, we would say as much as possible about who our sources are and why they were in a position to know this information. If we were in The State’s shoes and we were able to meet these standards, I think we would have to at least consider publishing the name in this case. Yet, to be honest, I can’t tell you with certainty exactly what we do in that situation. It certainly has generated plenty of conversation here, and it has spurred us to discuss and re-examine our own policies.
I will update again if I receive responses from any of the journalists I emailed from Columbia.