Most of the Salt Lake media were at weekend still holding off identifying the man charged 12 days earlier as the "Top Gun" bandit.
That's unusual, maybe unprecedented, compassion.It's surprising because the suspect, identified in news accounts as a 42-year-old Sandy man, was formally charged last month in the holdup of an ice cream store. That stickup was similar to 13 others committed by a man wearing that now-famous blue corduroy baseball cap emblazoned with the words "Top Gun" in gold letters.
However, after a lineup and a search of the man's home, deputy sheriffs still don't think they have a case strong enough to arrest and book him.
The Salt Lake Tribune, which broke the first story on the charge, told readers it was opting not to name him "due to the uncertainty of the detectives." The TV stations followed suit. The Deseret News resisted naming the man in its first story, but printed it in a followup.
- TV news often boldly names and even attributes guilt when suspects are arrested and often before they are formally charged.
The typical practice at the papers, which are considerably more circumspect, is to withhold identifications until a charge is filed. That way they don't get into libel trouble, since a fair and true report that sticks to what the court documents say is privileged. Such reports also clearly are within the ethical disclosure guidelines that police and press have agreed on.
The Deseret News sometimes names a suspect when he is booked into the jail but before the charge is filed. In those cases the suspect is never linked directly with the crime - that is, the crime is described, and then the person is named as held for investigation.
- What is heartening about the handling of the Top Gun story is that all the media worried a lot about whether the man should be named.
I often argue for restraint in using names in criminal matters, sometimes even when names are a matter of public record.
In this case, however, the media were fully warranted in identifying the suspect. It's not just that the formal charge was filed, indicating that the case has been investigated and law officers had probable cause for believing the suspect committed the crime. It's that the charge remained even though deputies expressed some uneasiness about the evidence. They might easily have asked for its dismissal; the charge could be refiled.
Almost as important as the question of names is the way the story is played. While the Tribune showed concern in identifying the suspect, it spread the story across the top of its local page: " `Top Gun Suspect Charged, Not Arrested." The TV stations have given it rather modest play. The Deseret News used both of its stories on inside pages. Throughout the stations and papers have stressed the tentativeness of the evidence.
I'm told that the News has had complaints both from readers who objected to the naming and from those who objected to the name having been withheld in the earlier story. The latter group felt the public had a right to know the identity of someone regarded as a potential risk to the community.
- NO OTHER PRESS SYSTEM goes as far in trying to protect the accused, and believe it or not, even convicted criminals, as the Swedish.
The Swedish press code says flatly, "Do not give the names of those suspected of a crime, those reported to public authorities, or of persons sentenced to an offense, unless this is absolutely necessary in the public interest." The question of what is in the public interest leaves a lot to the editors' discretion, of course, but in Sweden a press ombudsman ultimately gets involved in whether the papers made the right decision.
The code goes further to express a guideline that makes good sense everywhere, but which TV news people, in their pursuit of those all-important pictures, sometimes ignore: "If the name . . . is not published, do not then publish a picture, profession, title, age, sex or other particulars making it possible to identify the person concerned."
- WHEN TO USE THE NAME of any person in reporting a criminal action, including victims and others unwittingly involved, is a judgment call the press makes just about every day.
Most of the media work on a case-by-case basis on identifying victims. Typically they will not identify rape victims. The Tribune carried on one local news page last week five crime stories. Four of them were sex cases, in none of which the victim was identified, even indirectly. Similarly, the Deseret News almost never identifies victims of rape, sexual abuse or assault. For instance, a young woman attacked by what was described as a "foul smelling man" in a parking terrace at Christmas was never named, nor should she have been.
The Tribune, however, a few weeks ago ran the name of a teenaged paraplegic rape victim in a story about the convicted rapist's remaining out of jail. All the other media picked up the story and some others used the name. The Tribune explained that the mother asked for media attention. The Deseret News did not use the name but did identify the girl by indirection by using the name of the mother. Despite the mother's openness and the media's desire to humanize the story, I could see no need for using the girl's name and found it jarring in print and on the air.