Opinion: Name and shame journalism

POSTED: 01/31/13 11:47 AM

Media ethicist Huub Evers posed an interesting question in an opinion piece that was published in Trouw on Tuesday. Is the practice of initials and bars not totally obsolete? With the initials, Evers refers to criminals that are traditionally identified by their initials, and not by their full names in Dutch newspapers. The bars refer to those black things editors pout over the eyes of criminals or suspects to hide their identity.

The practice in St. Maarten is different: Today has its own policy: we publish first names and initials of crime-suspects with their age; sometimes when it is relevant for the story, we add a profession, but we do not add the country of origin because that is (almost) always irrelevant. We also protect the identity of suspects by – if necessary – put a bar over their eyes.

But once a suspect has been found guilty we publish the full name and in some cases also photos. With the rise of the internet gentlemen’s agreements about these practices seem to be losing their value. Also in St. Maarten we see irresponsible web sites that publish full names of suspects – even though they have not been found guilty of anything. The name and shame journalism from that corner is at times embarrassing – but not reason for this newspaper to hang on to its own standards. After all, if your neighbor engages in unsafe sex, it is not reason for anyone to follow that example either.

Evers refers to what happened in the Netherlands last week. There was a huge fight in Eindhoven where a group of eight youngsters beat up a man. video footage of the fight ended up on TV and on the internet. Not much longer there were pictures of the eight suspects were very recognizable. Their names were also added to the image.

A manhunt for the eight fighters ensued. Web sites like Geenstijl joined the manhunt and said that it was more important to arrest the hoodlums than to protect their privacy, even if this leads to threats against people who had nothing to do with that ugly fight.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Evers calls a loud and clear example of the goal justifies the means.

TV programs repeated the footage endlessly, suggesting that journalists had become part of the entities that are tasked with tracking and arresting criminals. They practice, a bit like gossip web sites in St. Maarten do, name and shame journalism, without setting any standards. It is a digital war and nobody seems to be able –or willing – to do something about it.

The best way to deal with all this is to make clear where you stand as a newspaper, a responsible publisher. We feel that our local print media are making the best of it. In general we respect privacy – public figures that end up in a scandal being the obvious exception – and we do not let ourselves be used as a tool for manhunts or forms of vigilante justice.

That internet publishers have at times no scruples at all is not our problem, but their problem. Only yesterday we saw an example on the net of internet scribbler Bibi Shaw who was thrown out of the courthouse for violating court room rules.

But Shaw turned this into a story that even involved racism because a prosecutor had dared to tell her off, while Shaw seemed to have no problem mumbling in her phone while the court was in session.

We’re not here to tell the prosecutor’s office or the courthouse what to do – they’re very capable of taking care of their own affairs. The poor level of gossip journalism practiced by Shaw has its own audience – and we feel sorry for the people who put such internet garbage on their daily menu.

And ethicist Evers? He says that the best way to deal with these dilemmas is to weigh the issues carefully every time and to explain to readers why the paper acted in a certain way in a certain situation. This seemed a good opportunity to do so.

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