Crime stories have just the facts, ma'am

August 06, 2006|by LIZ THOMPSON

There are 20 people named Donald Smith listed in the Washington County phone book.

There are nine people listed in the phone book who have the name John Jones.

There is a woman who lives in Jefferson County, W.Va., whose name is the same as mine.

That's why in most stories we write - and with few exceptions in every crime or police story we write - we include a person's age and address. The age and address are as much identifiers as a person's name.

Because we use the age and address, if a Donald Smith were to be charged with a crime, all the other Donald Smiths who are older or younger, or who live in a different area, would not have to spend all day explaining to people that they are not the Donald Smith who was charged.

People who have the same name as someone who has been charged with a crime rarely call to complain that their name has been in the paper.


That does not mean we don't get complaints about the policy.

I get several calls a month from people upset because their address has been listed in a police item. The caller is rarely the one who has been charged with a crime, but lives in the same household with someone who has been.

Often, the caller will tell me that the person charged does not live at the address listed. The caller wants the newspaper to write a correction saying the address was wrong.

If the address was included on a charging document or in a police press release, we aren't going to write a correction unless the police tell us they were wrong.

When someone is charged, police list that person's name and birth date on the charging documents, which are filed in a district court in Maryland or a magistrate court in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

These charging documents are a matter of public record and we check the courts every day. Sometimes, we are gathering additional information on a case police have told us about and we find a case that we had not heard about.

Anyone can search these records.

We also get complaints that the information we have printed about a criminal charge "is not true." I have talked to family members of someone who has been charged who want to know where we got the information.

Any specific information we print about a crime comes directly from the police, either through charging documents, a police press release or an interview with police.

The charging documents frequently include a police officer's reasoning for charging someone. In the charging document, a police officer will often write a narrative about the crime, stating what witnesses said or what the officer saw.

We use this information and say in the stories that the information comes from the charging documents.

Crime is an ugly thing, and most people don't want to be associated with it. But it is our responsibility as a community newspaper to write about it and to be as clear as we can about what the crime was and who has been charged.

Liz Thompson is city editor of The Herald-Mail. You can reach her at

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