“Avoid Showing Corpses”

The title of this post comes from the first line of something I stumbled upon this week.  In the footer of Bay News 9′s website is a link to its “Crime Guidelines” — what I find to be a refreshingly transparent and important move by a local news organization.

Two of the ten guidelines. Read the rest.

It goes on to discuss the placement of murders within a newscast:

“…number of persons involved, the circumstances surrounding the crime, and the location of the crime are all determining factors”

the repetition of stories:

“…avoid repeating a murder story past 12 hours unless we have NEW information to provide on the crime.”

and airing the names of juveniles charged as adults:

“Even when that does happen, the final decision to air the name of a juvenile can only be made by the news director”.

In many newsrooms, these were old, unwritten rules passed down from generation of jaded staffer to the next.  “Oh, we never say the suspect is a Hispanic male because that’s racist,” an experienced producer may explain, “but we can say he’s 5’8″, 165 pounds with a scar over his left eye.”

And so the next batch of staffers would take note without really understanding the why behind that misstatement.  Now with turnover at an ever increase rate, this attempts to explain (in all caps) the rules:

“A suspect description will only be used when specific identifying characteristics of the suspect are provided. Unusual clothing, visible scars, unusual hairstyles or colors, and type of vehicle all qualify as specific identifying characteristics. RACE MUST NEVER BE USED AS THE SOLE IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTIC.”

The guidelines are more powerful when put into context.

This week I also came across this column by Dan Abrams (of “NBC legal analyst” fame).  He learned of the death of one of his “few and truest loves” by reading it online.  No fault of the reporter, he explained.  But in Abrams’ piece what resonates is that words matter.  Every murder victim you write about was loved by someone and that someone may discover the news by your words and characterizations.

That’s why guidelines like these — and the public commitment someone at Bay News 9 made to their viewers by sharing these guidelines — are just part of being a good citizen and neighbor.

These read to me not as much as guidelines as a newsroom policy made public.  It’s the sort of document that is distributed to the staff and then often lost under a pile of scripts on a desk.

This transparency ought to be copied by newsrooms from coast to coast — not only to explain newsroom decisions to viewers, but to remind producers and reporters and editors that they are accountable to a public who can find these guidelines on every page of the website.

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