IMC Recommendation No. 12. On how to cover crime stories

October 26, 2020

Crime receives lots of attention in the Ukrainian media. However, such materials are not always prepared with due regard to rights of suspects, crime victims or even journalists themselves.

Crime is a sensitive subject and covering it calls for special attention. Information disseminated in the media can easily cause fear, anxiety, bias, or violate a person’s privacy.

In view of this, the Independent Media Council recommends that the media and journalists follow a number of recommendations.

1. The rules for covering crimes should be discussed within the newsroom. Journalists should not be left alone with their problems, especially if they lack experience or some specific knowledge. It is desirable to write down the most typical rules and basic terms in internal editorial documents (editorial policies, guidelines, etc.).

2. It is necessary to strike a balance between an audience’s need to be informed and an obligation to not spark panic or turn a news feed into a criminal chronicle. This applies both to selecting the subjects to be covered and coverage methods. We recommend that newsrooms produce no more than 5-10% of crime news out of all the news put out by the media (except for when covering emergencies and in the case of media specializing in crime reporting). 

3. It is unacceptable for journalists to use emotional language in the news, especially when covering crime. This approach may both undermine the critical audience’s trust toward a particular media, and scare away other viewers/readers from your media who are vulnerable or simply not willing to see a significant amount of striking negativity in the news. One should avoid excessive hyperbole, which may distort the content of information and create a false impression for the reader. Two cars burned down during the night in different parts of the city should not result in headlines like “cars were burning all over the city.” The media cannot be accused of raising fear and anxiety, if the journalists stick to the facts, reporting them accurately.

4. Materials about a specific crime case should contain as many details as necessary to understand the context. If it is commonly known that robberies occur in a particular area on a regular basis, it is worth being mentioned in the material. Such information will forewarn those living in the area, without disturbing the residents of other areas.

5. When providing facts, it is necessary to take into consideration the rights of the persons referred to in the material. Information about a natural person found in a situation of an alleged crime may be disseminated with their consent or out of social necessity, when the public’s right to know this information outweighs the potential harm from its dissemination (Article 296 of the Civil Code, Article 29 of the Law On Information, 2011 version). If journalistic information does not contain data allowing for identification of a specific individual, that individual’s rights will not be violated. However, it should be borne in mind that a person can be identified not only by name, but also by photo, address or other, more specific characteristics that may disclose a person’s identity to a certain circle of those knowing them (including neighbors in an apartment building, colleagues at work to whom they would not be willing to disclose their confidential information). This usually has to do with disclosing several facts about a person at the same time, even without providing a name or a photo – place of residence / work, age, medical information, etc. Also, the degree of privacy may vary. For instance, neighbors may know that some person has been a crime victim, but that is no reason to disclose their identity in the media without their consent. After all, the media have a much wider audience than the number of neighbors. 

6. Particular care should be taken when providing information about possible victims of an alleged crime. On the one hand, it is unacceptable to disclose a victim’s identity, unless he/she so desires or is aware of the consequences of such disclosure. We would like to remind that despite the desire to reveal one’s identity in the press, a person may not understand all the consequences of this action due to stress or mere ignorance. On the other hand, it is necessary to prevent the provision of information stigmatizing the victims, partly shifting the blame for the crime onto them. The so-called victim blaming occurs when a victim (victims) of a crime, accident or any kind of violence is held fully or partly accountable for the violation or misfortune that occurred to them. Usually, victim blaming takes the form of racist, sexist and classist statements. It is desirable to provide the victims’ detailed characteristics in analytical materials, i.e. without reference to a specific crime event, accompanied by comments from qualified and independent experts to avoid the aforementioned victim blaming.

7. Relatives and friends should not find out about a person’s death from the news in the media. Before disclosing the name of the deceased, journalists should check with law enforcement agencies or other relevant services on whether their relatives have already been informed.

8. Besides the fact that disclosing the names of those involved in criminal proceedings is unacceptable, it is worth noting the following. The alleged perpetrator’s racial, national, religious affiliation, etc. should be indicated only if they are wanted by law enforcement agencies and if such characteristics are identifying, i.e. helping identify the person in question. Otherwise, such mentions will help reinforce common stereotypes and discrimination against protected groups. Family or official ties, participation in public organizations should not be mentioned, unless clearly related to the crime.

9. Journalistic materials simply republishing information from law enforcement agencies are biased. Apparently, it is not always possible to find witnesses, victims, and even more so, get comments from a detainee / suspect, although police reports are usually quite impersonal. However, one should search for and try to provide other sources in addition to law enforcement agencies. This follows from journalists’ obligation to give their audience as much complete information as possible. Independent experts, such as forensic specialists, psychologists, experts in the field in which the crime occurred, etc. should be asked to comment. In the event that alternative sources are hard to find or reluctant to provide information, this should be clearly stated in the material. Susan Chira, editor in chief of the Marshall Project, a digital news site that focuses on the criminal justice system, told The Washington Post: “The basic [journalistic] principle should be, treat the police like any other source, with the same degree of skepticism as you treat any other source.”

10. Journalists may encounter cases where they are asked or demanded to distort or not disclose certain information in the material. Distortion is unacceptable even at the request of law enforcement agencies: clearly their task is to solve the crime, but the media in such a situation may lose the audience’s trust, i.e. in this case, the interests of law enforcement and journalists do not coincide.

Law enforcement’s request to not publish certain information supposed to help solve a crime, should be considered by the newsroom, taking into account all the important aspects and potential consequences of such a step. Agreeing to the law enforcement’s proposal, they should be informed that it applies only to particular aspects of the specific events. The newsroom itself should control content presented to the audience.

Law enforcement agencies can also request that newsroom not disclose certain information that is the secrecy of the investigation as provided for by Article 222 of the Criminal Procedure Code, including criminal liability for disclosing information related to pre-trial investigation. Therefore, journalists / editors have no choice in such cases. However, the newsroom should clarify first whether it is an unofficial request by law enforcement or an official request under Article 222 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

11. We must remember that the core function of journalism is to provide its audience with the most complete information, and not to find perpetrators or prove their guilt (that is the function of law enforcement agencies). The media should provide assistance in solving crimes with no obvious harm to journalism’s core public function. Journalists often view their work as correcting what they see as social flaws, putting aside their obligation to inform the audience fully and in a balanced way, instead promoting a particular point of view. On account of this, journalists should refrain from promoting any subjective view of the event that they consider correct and worth defending (in particular, with regard to a person’s guilt (innocence), even if it has been emphasized that it is a subjective point of view).

12. If the police named a detainee / suspect / accused, providing their point of view is also required by the professional standard of balance and the principle of guaranteeing the impartiality of the trial. If a detainee or suspect (their lawyer) decline to comment, this should be specified in the material. For example, in the case of Flux and Samson v Moldova ECHR stressed that informing the reader about the views of all parties is an expression of good faith and acting in consonance with principles of responsible journalism [1]. Journalists can, on their own initiative, disclose a person who is likely to have committed a criminal offense (indicating his/her procedural status in criminal proceedings) only if this constitutes a matter of overriding public interest, e.g. it is a public figure – a politician, famous actor, athlete, etc.

13. The personality of a detainee / suspect / accused should be properly separated from their family. The former’s consent to appear in a media material does not imply automatic approval on the part of their family. Consent should be obtained from each individual member, and it should be borne in mind that the degree of awareness and understanding of the consequences of media appearance may vary with different family members – not all of them may be fully aware of this decision without proper explanation.

It should also be borne in mind that due to ill-thought-out coverage of events in the media, the family of a detainee / suspect / accused may face undeserved public condemnation or even harassment. This may have particularly severe consequences for the healthy development of minors.

14. It would be a breach of ethical requirements to offer material rewards to those involved in criminal proceedings in exchange for their account of the events, as low-income individuals may be tempted by such offers despite their desire to keep the information confidential. 

15. One should be particularly cautious about providing information, when children (both victims and perpetrators) are involved in a wrongful act. With permission from parents or persons acting on their behalf to disclose the identity of a perpetrator aged 14-18, the newsroom should assess whether disclosing information about them is not contrary to their interests. Because parents, too, can harm the interests of their own children by giving their consent being in a state of shock, neglecting their responsibilities toward their children or ignoring the specific nature of the information environment or certain aspects of the minors’ personal life.

If a rape case or a similar crime against a minor is covered, the child’s name cannot be disclosed under any circumstances. The same applies to a minor’s name (under 14 y.o.) who is in any way linked to a wrongful act (as perpetrator, victim, or witness).

16. The impartiality of justice is ensured not only by the composition and quality of the court, or compliance with legal requirements for trial. In some cases, the court may find itself under pressure from public opinion on the defendants’ guilt or innocence, formed based on a one-sided presentation in the media of information about an alleged crime. On the one hand, it is important to realize that “courts cannot operate in a vacuum”, and, therefore, an ongoing trial should not be an absolute obstacle to discussing a criminal case in the media and especially in specialized publications. Specifically, in Sunday Times v the United Kingdom, the ECtHR noted that the need to disseminate information about criminal proceedings is based not only on the media’s desire to impart such information, the public also has a right to receive information [2]. On the other hand, as the ECtHR points out in its later practice, the need to cover criminal proceedings should in no way open up opportunities for journalists to usurp the role of the court. Specifically, the media reporting on the opening of criminal proceedings has no right to declare suspects guilty, passing a verdict on a person instead of judges. For instance, in Worm v Austria, the Court ruled that “the public’s becoming accustomed to the regular spectacle of pseudo-trials in the news media might in the long run have nefarious consequences for the acceptance of the courts as the proper forum for the determination of a person’s guilt or innocence on a criminal charge” [3]. It is also worth remembering that such actions may damage the media’s reputation, giving the impression of its incompetence in matters addressed in disseminated materials. 

To prevent this, journalists have to provide balanced and accurate information about investigations and trials. It may not be easy to communicate with a detainee, but almost all of them have a lawyer who is easier to contact (compared to a person in confinement or prison). It can also be considered that the newsrooms’ / journalists’ right to express their own opinion in an analytical material about an alleged crime in this case is narrower and it should not interfere with a fair trial. For the same reasons, a person cannot be called a “robber”, “murderer”, “rapist”, etc. without a court ruling. 

Under no circumstances should journalists violate the presumption of innocence, i.e. declare a person guilty in one way or another of a wrongdoing prior to a court ruling about that person’s guilt. This rule strictly applies to crimes investigated by law enforcement agencies or when the case has already been referred to court. 

It applies even if a person has already been declared guilty by certain officials, e.g. the Minister of Internal Affairs, Prosecutor, President and others. Until the court passes a verdict, it will be a violation of the presumption of innocence and of the Constitution of Ukraine. Those officials’ words may be quoted, noting the absence of a court verdict and outlining the position of the person whose actions will be assessed by the court (or their lawyer). 

17. It is also necessary to correctly use the legal terms describing a person’s status. According to Articles 42-43 of the Criminal Procedure Code:

  • Suspect shall be the person who has been notified of suspicion as prescribed under the CPC, or the person who has been apprehended on suspicion of having committed a criminal offence or the person in whose regard a notice of suspicion has been compiled but it has not been delivered because of failure to establish the whereabouts of the person, provided all means have been used as specified by this Code to deliver a notice of suspicion. 
  • Accused (defendant) shall be the person an indictment in whose respect has been referred to court.
  • In criminal proceedings, an acquitted individual shall be the defendant in whose respect the judgment of acquittal has taken legal effect.
  • In criminal proceedings, an convicted individual shall be the defendant in whose respect the judgment of conviction has taken legal effect.

18. To limit the likelihood of inaccuracies, try to get information from as many sources as possible. When collecting information about an alleged crime, journalists naturally find that the sources of information are biased. In addition, many people may have been in great emotional distress at the time of the event, which prevented them from remembering certain aspects of it or looking at it from a distance. If accounts coming from different sources or the parties to criminal proceedings contradict each other, two (or more) available versions of a particular aspect of the event should be presented, indicating who sticks to which version. This rule corresponds to the concept of “duties and responsibilities” of journalists which involves verifying factual statements by conducting a reasonable amount of research [4], and, therefore, processing all possible sources of information to come up with a balanced news report. 

19. High-quality coverage of crime cases requires that journalists possess a certain professional knowledge of the theory and practice of criminal procedure and of the work of law enforcement agencies. This does not mean that journalists should have a basic legal education, but that more experienced colleagues should help the newsroom beginners, given the seriousness of criminal subjects. 

20. The media can report information provided by members of the criminal world, on condition that it is rigorously fact-checked, with appropriate skepticism and further processing. The media should not present information in such a way as to approve of or even glorify a life in crime, etc. 

21. We would like to remind journalists (and especially newsrooms) that safety issues should be taken into consideration when working on crime news topics. It is advisable for newsrooms to refrain from assigning tasks to journalists in this area if they is unable to provide them with proper protection, not endangering their health or even life. 

1 Flux and Samson v Moldova, App no 28700/03 (ECtHR, 23 October, 2007), para 26.

2 Sunday Times v the United Kingdom, App no 6538/74 (ECtHR, 26 April 1979), para 65

3 Worm v Austria, App no 22714/93 (ECtHR, 29 August 1997), para 54

4 Dorota Kania v Poland (No. 2), App no 44436/13 (ECtHR, 4 October 2016), para 65