Police practice of withholding crime victims’ names can pose challenges for journalistic credibility, Ryerson Journalism professor’s research shows
This is a sneak peek at research to be presented June 3-4, 2017 at “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future,” a conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Click here to learn more and register.
By ALLISON RIDGWAY
Staff reporterPolice departments across Canada are refusing to release the names of victims in fatality and murder investigations, a practice one researcher calls a “tremendous step back for press freedom” that could put the public at risk.
The withholding of names by police is something new, says Lisa Taylor, an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism in Toronto. She said journalists made her aware of the issue when they called asking her to comment on the matter in her capacity as an academic.
“Reporters were calling me, frustrated, saying, ‘this never used to happen. What’s happening?’” said Taylor, who has worked as a lawyer and reporter.
“Police tend to file this under a broad category of ‘privacy,’” she said. “But there is no driving legal change that could possibly have enforced this. This is just a more conservative interpretation [of Canada’s Privacy Act] and a dialing-down of what used to be a normal practice. There just seems to be this notion of, ‘If in doubt, we’re just not going to release this information to the public anymore.’”
Taylor, who spent the last year reviewing both the scholarly literature on the topic and incidents, will discuss her research results in June at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future. In addition to presenting data on how often police are withholding victims’ names, she will discuss what she discovered about their reasons for adopting the practice.
When a police department refuses to release victims’ names, she said, it creates major issues for news organizations in an era when fake news abounds and journalists are under more pressure than ever to provide truthful information to the public.
“We are trying as journalists to make sure our sources are solid and reliable,” Taylor says. “And the most solid and reliable source we have to answer the question of ‘Who’s dead?’ was and remains the police who are investigating [the case]. Instead, what we have now are many less reliable sources [such as social media posts].”
Some journalists, she said, have had to use Facebook memoriam pages to get basic information on victims, increasing the risk of spreading hoaxes and rumours. Others have had to go directly to crime victim’s families and friends for information, undermining police claims that withholding information will protect the family’s privacy.
The refusal to release names and identifying information, Taylor said, may also undermine police investigations: “With respect, how do the police know what they don’t know? A case may look like it’s all sewn up and tidy, but maybe if an individual’s name was released someone would say, ‘Oh, wow, it was her,’ and come forward to the police with new information that they didn’t have due to unconscious ignorance.”
Taylor says that she hopes her findings will help journalists understand why police are withholding information.
“I’m not even looking for a step forward for working journalists, I’m just looking to undo this step backward that they’re encountering,” she says. “I’m trying to get it back to the way it was for a long time.”