Naming names: Differences in international crime reporting

Romayne Smith FullertonRomayne Smith Fullerton, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, and colleague Professor Maggie Jones Patterson of Duquesne University, heard a story in 2009 that made a marked impression on them.

While touring European newsrooms with her foreign reporting class eight years ago, Jones Patterson spoke with the editor of a Dutch news organization about an incident in which a man attempted to assassinate the Queen during her birthday parade. Jones Patterson relayed what she’d been told to Smith Fullerton.

"This man, Karst Tates, stole a car, drove through police barricades, killed eight people, injured 10 more, and confessed to police exactly what his intentions were, before dying of head injuries incurred when he crashed into a monument," describes Smith Fullerton. "Guilt was not in question."

However, many Dutch news outlets chose to omit the offender's name from their stories, a practice unheard of in North America.

“[Maggie] called me and said ‘Do you know that in Holland, people charged, and in some cases convicted, of serious crimes are not routinely named or identified?’” Smith Fullerton explains. “This question—and this case—started our comparative project.”

With early funding provided by a SSHRC bridge grant, internal grants from Western and FIMS, as well as a private American endowment, the pair of researchers decided to focus their efforts on international differences in the reporting of major crimes. To explore these differences in greater detail Smith Fullerton and Jones Patterson spent several years analyzing and comparing the international codes of ethics and other factors that inform journalists when making decisions about how to cover a story.

There were more surprising conversations to come.

In 2010, while conducting an interview with the then president of the journalists’ union in the Netherlands, the man told Smith Fullerton and Jones Patterson something that jumped out at the duo as remarkable.

In discussing why the press in Holland is reluctant to publish the names of people suspected of crimes, or even of people who have been convicted of a crime, his comment made clear some stark differences between his home and North America.

“He explained [to us] the difference between the United States and his own country,” Smith Fullerton remembers. “He said, ‘In America, everyone has a right to make a million dollars. In Holland, everyone has a right to start again.’”

Smith Fullerton originally decided she wanted to dig deeper into the issues surrounding ethics in crime reporting in the early 2000s. After meeting Jones Patterson at the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference, the two scholars quickly recognized the similarities in their work. Smith Fullerton had recently written about fairytales and their connection to the reporting on notorious Canadian murderers Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo, while Jones Patterson had written several journalistic pieces about a man charged with first-degree murder in the US, now awaiting execution on death row.

In 2005, they co-authored "Murder in our Midst: expanding coverage to include care and responsibility", focusing on the portrayals of perpetrators and their victims in North American news coverage.

In 2017, Smith Fullerton and Patterson continue to collect data and interview journalists and influencers from countries including the United States, Canada, England, Holland, Ireland, Sweden, Italy and Spain. In each nation, journalists employ a method of reporting that reflects one of three different news models, defined by each region's historic ties to government, politics and institutions, like religion. Identified by theorists Hallin and Mancini, the models include the North Atlantic or Liberal model; the polarized pluralist or Mediterranean model; and the North/Central Europe or Democratic Corporatist model.

"Generally, in each country, we begin by consulting national and regional ethics codes, as well as style guides or manuals offered by journalistic unions and by media institutions," says Smith Fullerton.

To complete their project, the pair must still conduct interviews and examine data from Germany, and another northern European country, as yet to be determined.

The preliminary stages of their project earned them international recognition in the form of scholarly and professional awards, and a more recent SSHRC grant will allow them to continue their data collection, hire graduate assistants to help with analysis, and promote the manuscript. Eventually they hope to develop their work into a book.

In December 2016, seven years after their initial inspiration for the project, Smith Fullerton presented the study's preliminary findings in a community talk entitled, “Naming (or not naming) Names: An International Comparison of Crime Coverage”, as part of the FIMS #PublicInterest Lecture series.

The lecture began with a description of the Karst Tates case, and went on to detail how various journalistic methods and codes have developed over time. It included some discussion of the core values that inform these decisions and the tension between a public’s right to know, and the rights of the individual. 
Smith Fullerton also recently published the book Covering Canadian Crime: What Journalists Should Know and the Public Should Question, which she co-authored with FIMS PhD Media Studies alumnus Chris Richardson. Richardson, now an assistant professor at Young Harris College in Georgia, teaches and researches representations of crime in contemporary pop culture. The book’s focus on the way that crime is covered in Canada, and the repercussions of journalistic decision-making, is a natural fit with her interest in international differences in crime reporting.

Covering Canadian Crime explores some of the ethical questions surrounding crime reporting, from using social media in the courtroom, to reporters reaching out to victims' loved ones, and even the stigmatization of mental illness. It also examines how changes to our world, specifically in technology and business, play a role in molding the ways in which Canadian journalists choose to cover crime.  

Smith Fullerton hopes that the research she and Jones Patterson are currently engaged in will shed light on the ethical differences in crime reporting among capitalist democracies that would otherwise remain unnoticed. She also hopes that the research will prompt discussion about the current state of journalism and democracy in Canada.

"We can learn a great deal from each other," says Smith Fullerton, "and we can also decide whether what we do is, in fact, upholding the goals we have for our own journalistic institutions."