College Newspaper Will No Longer Publish Names of Student Crime Suspects in Police Beat

The Miami Student will no longer publish the names of student criminal suspects in its regular Police Beat round-up. The student newspaper at Ohio’s Miami University explained the editorial shift earlier this month in a front-page article, fleshed out by a pair of pieces alternately supporting and denouncing the decision.

According to Student editor-in-chief Katie Taylor, the policy change is the right, respectful call in the Internet age, sparing students years of Googleable embarrassment over what often amounts to minor, youthful indiscretions. As she contends, “Miami University is a place where students come to start their lives. They are still young adults, and mistakes are common. Many of the incidents published in the Police Beat are first-time offenses in which the charges are dropped. Although the legal system forgives these mistakes, The Miami Student does not. Once your name goes online with publication, it’s out there forever. In the past this was not the case. Technology has made this discussion pertinent. Tradition must be re-evaluated as the world around us changes.”

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Tradition aside, from a legal perspective, a local Ohio attorney supports the shift because the past naming of students has resulted in trouble for them once they had their records sealed — a normal occurrence for the smaller infractions (usually tied to alcohol or marijuana) often included in the column.

Another argument in favor of dropping the names centers on what some see as biased source material: the original police report.

In Taylor’s words, “It relies on information presented by a single source, a police officer’s 10-minute encounter with an individual. By nature, they are one-sided. They provide no follow-up, no outside perspective or investigation. They lack the integrity of a balanced news story.”

A local police officer’s counter to that charge is that the problem is among the public who reads the reports, not the police who write them up. As he put it, “A person’s name in the Police Beat is not placed there in a malicious fashion. It is a stating of facts of circumstance. It doesn’t state that a crime was committed.”

Nevertheless, a letter writer applauding the change equates the entire name-game with “salacious journalism that serves no greater purpose other than inducing gawking and giggling at the misfortunes of others. These incidents are often the result of larger problems, including a culture that celebrates binge drinking and a system that doesn’t do enough to educate young people on the effects of alcohol. Furthermore, in a question of ethics, journalists must weigh the importance of sullying the names of students who have done something embarrassing, but not necessarily newsworthy. I point to the case of a young man who vomited while in police custody (Police Beat, 9/27/13). Whose interests are served when reporting this man’s name?”

The competing argument is that the possibility of being featured in the Police Beat may have acted in the past as a “deterrent to common crime” on or near campus.

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Yet, that shame factor also has a counterargument. A Miami University official tells the paper a place in the Police Beat has become a perverted spotlight for students seeking attention. In her words, “For some people, it may feel shameful; for others, it’s a badge of honor. I’ve had students that have said, ‘Yeah, I’m that guy.’ It gives them a sort of notoriety.”

Andrew Geisler, an MU student critical of the new no-name policy, worries that by withholding the names the paper is overprotecting legal adults who should know better by now or who need to learn their lesson. It is also, in his view, ignoring the desires of the readers the outlet aims to serve.

As Geisler writes, “The Student’s job is to cover the Miami University community. The Police Beat is a longtime, well-liked aspect of this coverage. The opinion of a defense attorney, and the need to protect students from the consequences of their foolish decisions, are not compelling enough reasons to deviate from the past practice of the Police Beat. … Protecting students from the consequences of their mistakes is not the role of a student newspaper. Covering the Miami University community is. It’s unfortunate that the Student will be doing that job in a less complete manner as a result of this decision.”

Geisler also questions how impacting the paper’s protectiveness will actually be on young people’s futures. As he argues, “No anecdotal evidence exists proving that students have lost out on their dream job because they peed in an alley or drunkenly yelled obscenities at police officers. And if that’s what these 18-22 year-olds deem ‘youthful mistakes,’ it’s time to grow up, and take responsibility for your actions — breaking the law is breaking the law.”

What do you think?

Comments
One Response to “College Newspaper Will No Longer Publish Names of Student Crime Suspects in Police Beat”
  1. Ellen says:

    My (former) student newspaper has printed names of students who allegedly possessed a massive a amount of illegal drugs, wrecked while drunk driving, damaged fraternity property and stole university-owned items, among other things. These acts are not permissible in the “real world” and could cause serious harm in one way or another. A student newspaper who slips instances like these under the rug only condones this type of behavior, which doesn’t benefit anyone in the college community. I don’t believe journalism is in the business of teaching people a lesson the hard way, but students who commit crimes must own up to their actions, especially when it involves the legal system. The legal system considers you a legal adult, and you should be expected to act accordingly. Being a student on a campus bubble doesn’t entitle you to get away with illegal “mistakes.” I dislike the attitude that the The Miami Student is supporting — that “real world” crimes are considered “mistakes” just because they occur on college campuses.