People love to read crime stories.
They eagerly dug into the news – announced Feb. 4 – that a large scale bust had taken place in Haliburton County the previous week.
Operation Imperial – as the cops dubbed it – was certainly huge, with 16 people charged as our community remains anxious about drug crime.
However, discussion online quickly turned to the names of the individuals charged, which The Highlander did not post. People wanted those names immediately, so they could know who allegedly wronged their community. They went as far as to link stories in our Facebook comments to other news agencies who could offer that. But this kind of attitude is dangerous, and the names of people charged with offences should never be released lightly.
One of the prevailing issues for reporters in naming people is presumed innocence. People may know that just because a person is charged does not mean they are guilty. But it does not always play out that way in the public sphere and getting named in a story like this can lead to people being unduly mistreated. This is especially true in a large case such as this when people can get tarred and feathered by association, even if they may have only played a small part in a crime or could even be outright innocent.
Small-town news outlets such as those in Haliburton County also rarely have the resources to go to court to confirm what happens to these alleged criminals. The police and court systems will not send out any press releases about the results of these people’s charges. Unless we can dutifully follow what can be a months-long process, we cannot easily discover whether our justice system might clear these people’s names.
We also must consider the realities of our online world. A person’s name can become permanently associated with a story about them being charged, even if they are later proven innocent. Employers can, and do, unfairly discriminate against people with bad Google results. Whether or not a person is guilty, using names in a crime story can have far-reaching consequences beyond due punishment.
All of this must be weighed against the public interest in knowing people charged with crimes. In small towns especially, people would like to know if they are associating with an alleged criminal, especially if they’re charged in connection with serious offences.
But the public interest can often be quite low. Unless the person is a prominent public figure, which is quite rare, most people will probably not know the person who gets charged very well. It does not necessarily make much of a difference to public safety to release such names, depending on the crime.
Of course, releasing names must be taken on a case-by-case basis. Someone getting charged with murder is very different than drug possession. A massive drug-bust is different than a singular theft. News agencies and police can also too often be inconsistent in their approach to naming suspects, hurting the public’s ability to parse when it is appropriate.
People in the public need to more seriously consider the release of suspect names and whether they really do need that information. When police and/or news outlets do release them, people must not abuse that information, lest the cops and the media become even less inclined to release names in the future.