What this document is
The Pantagraph is a digital-first newsroom. That means we often report news as the story is developing in real time.
Our responsibility is to report accurately and fairly, even when all of the facts are not fully known. We’re transparent about our process with readers.
This document is provided to our staff and provides guidelines on how we report on breaking news as well as public safety and crime.
If you have questions about this document, contact Central Illinois Deputy Editor Mark Pickering at (309) 820-3252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We subscribe to the belief that ethical reporting is paramount and we follow the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. Our policy is based on practices developed by the Poynter Institute, the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, and newsrooms within Lee Enterprises Inc. especially the Sioux City Journal.
Defining breaking news
Breaking news is any information that a large number of people want or need to get. This includes developing stories that involve public safety, such as fires and weather, as well as issues of high interest, such as a traffic accident that might cause heavy delays.
See below for specific examples.
Posting breaking news
Breaking news can be created and posted by anyone in the newsroom. Sensitive breaking news should be reviewed by at least one newsroom manager before it is posted. Journalists should seek guidance on any breaking news that requires the approval of a supervising editor.
Breaking news cannot be posted without the presence of at least one clearly identified official source, unless otherwise approved by an editor. Acceptable sources include anyone with authoritative, firsthand knowledge of the situation or public officials and/or other traditional print media sources who have been given authority to communicate with the media on the subject. Anonymous sources will not be used unless approved by an editor.
Scanner traffic will not be used as the only source for a breaking news update unless outstanding circumstances are present.
We will consider using information gathered from readers including video and photos of breaking news events. We will strive to independently verify such information, including information gathered via social media sites, before posting, especially information that is sensitive in nature.
Newsroom staff will post breaking news updates in a variety of settings, including on social media, live video like Facebook Live and live blogs. The standards for posting news in these settings are the same as outlined in this document.
We will correct or clarify information in breaking news stories as quickly as possible. We will be transparent about those corrections or clarifications. If the facts change, we will tell our readers what has happened and how these facts differ from our original reporting. We will be vigilant about making those corrections and/or clarifications, even if the facts change hours or days after the original report.
Crime- and court-reporting guidelines
Our mission is to impartially cover the news and present all sides equally. This extends to coverage of public safety, the courts, police and crime.
SOURCING AND NAMING THE ACCUSED
Put simply, every accusation made against any person must be attributed to avert any sense the Pantagraph is making an allegation. The A.P. Stylebook advises we must “avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial.”
To do this, specify the source of an allegation to allow the public to judge the reliability and motivation of the source. In a criminal case, that means an arrest record, an indictment, or the statement of a public official or member of law enforcement.
Be clear and fair by attributing each piece of information on a suspect to police reports and court documents: "According to the criminal complaint, Jones fired two shots ... "
The word “alleged” is jargon and should be rephrased into conversational English, such as “accused of” or “charged with.” In cases when the word “alleged” must be used, apply the modifier to the offense, not the suspect: “alleged theft” not “alleged thief.”
Remember: Until a person is convicted, he or she is a suspect or defendant and is not an alleged slayer, thief, etc.
We subscribe to the SPJ Code of Ethics when naming suspects: “Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.”
In general, names of people arrested are not to be used until they are formally charged, which indicates a prosecutor concurred with an arresting officer about sufficient evidence a crime had been committed. Generally, that is in the form of a grand jury or issuance of an arrest warrant or criminal information by prosecutors.
Limited use of preliminary charges
There are exceptions to waiting for formal charges to name an accused criminal, and serious risks should be weighed in each. In the case of high-profile crimes that involve very serious incidents or noteworthy people, it may be appropriate to use preliminary charges for the basis of using someone’s name. (Common exceptions are listed below.)
Such an allowance should be discussed promptly before writing starts with an editor, who has been instructed to carefully and vigorously consider all factors, including the potential harm to an accused person. Remember: preliminary charges can change once the case is reviewed by the State’s Attorney’s Office. Just because we have information doesn’t mean we should use it.
A good rule of thumb when considering using preliminary charges are allegations that are Class X felonies, the most serious in Illinois criminal code. They are:
- Attempted murder
- Aggravated kidnapping
- Aggravated battery with a firearm
- Aggravated battery of a child
- Home invasion
- Aggravated criminal sexual assault
- Predatory criminal sexual assault of a child
- Armed robbery
- Aggravated vehicular hijacking
- Aggravated arson
- Possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver (such as 15-100 grams or possession with intent to deliver within 1,000 feet of a public park, church, school, or public housing)
Required language when preliminary charges are used
The Associated Press Style is to use “arrested on a suspicion of” if a charge hasn’t been filed.
Additionally, if preliminary charges are printed, we must describe that formal charging decisions are made by the State’s Attorney’s Office, not the police.
Many times, preliminary charges will be accompanied by paperwork signed by a police officer describing the circumstances and investigation of the case. These documents are sometimes called sworn statements. In print, refer to them as “an affidavit signed by a police officer.”
We also are transparent that charges may change or be dropped. We do that by listing each preliminary charge and explaining the case is under review by the State’s Attorney’s Office.
In all cases, remember that the accused person is a suspect and is innocent until proved guilty. If the accused has pleaded innocent, say so in every story.
Be especially careful with search warrants, which do not necessarily mean the person named is a suspect.
Always list a bond amount when someone is charged, and keep in mind that the reader isn’t familiar with how the bond process works.
Whenever we name a person, we take on the responsibility of reporting their legal process. Although most people who are arrested are charged, they are not always charged with the same crimes they were arrested for. When we use the name, we are making a commitment to follow through on covering the outcome of the prosecution.
SEEKING COMMENTS FROM ACCUSED
When an accused criminal is named, every effort is made to speak with him or her, as outlined by the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”
If a person accused of a crime is not available, we seek the counsel for him or her to comment. If the lawyer is not available, we say: “Jim Jones, an attorney for Thompson, was not immediately available to comment about the allegations Friday.” If a lawyer has not been named, we say: “A lawyer for Thompson had not been named as of Friday.”
In the interest of fairness, place the comment (or lack of comment) from the accused or his/her lawyer high in the story.
PEOPLE ACCUSED OF CRIMES
Our goal is to be as precise as possible in identifying someone accused of crime, especially when a common name is involved. We want to avoid implicating an innocent person, so use first and last names and a middle initial if available, as well as age.
In general, we don’t use addresses or block numbers for individuals charged with crimes because we have found that many of those arrested give false information or no longer live at the address they have listed.
Don’t use racial identification in a crime story unless we also have the following criteria: a height and weight description from police and/or a fairly specific clothing description. A typical description would be: Police described the suspect as a white male, approximately 5 feet 8 inches tall, 150 pounds and wearing a dark jacket with light-colored jeans.
Generally, criminal records of people arrested and charged are not used prior to or during trials, unless past offenses become an issue in public pre-trial hearings.
Criminal histories are pertinent in many cases but we should nevertheless weigh carefully whether to print them. Reporters should check the official record, rather than relying on clips, before reporting criminal histories.
The same standard for using a person’s name applies to running mug shots – it should be for serious crimes and generally after formal charges are filed. See “Naming” entry.
Juvenile courts protect the identity of persons under 18 charged with crimes. Therefore, we usually do not print their names, parents’ names or schools. We do print the juvenile’s age and city of residence but not street address.
An exception is when a juvenile charged with a crime is certified for trial as an adult. In these cases, the name of the juvenile is printed, along with other identifying facts relevant to the story.
In those cases that remain in juvenile court that involve an especially newsworthy or heinous act there may be exceptions to using the juvenile’s name once he or she is adjudicated (or found guilty) of the offense. This decision will be made by newsroom editors in consultation with reporters on a case-by-case basis.
Naming crime victims
We generally don’t name crime victims, although there may be exceptions, including:
- The victim is dead
- The victim is a public figure
- The person agrees in an interview to be named
- The crime was committed in a public place and the victim was badly hurt
- Speaking with crime victims
Talk to an editor before you talk with a crime victim. We want to protect victims from reprisal, threats, harassment and shame.
Reporters seeking comment from crime victims or their relatives should be courteous at all times. Our policy allows reporters to try to reach victims at home, hospitals, schools, workplace, etc. Reporters should be sensitive at all times.
Whenever we talk to someone who says he or she is a victim, we must corroborate the allegations and get a comment from the accused.
Names of sexual assault victims are not printed in news stories. We do print the age of sexual assault victims and city or neighborhood of residence.
If the public interest is served — for example, a warning of a high-crime area — we will describe in general terms the site of the sexual assault. We want to be specific enough to let the public know where such assaults are happening.
We protect the identity of the sexual assault victim in subsequent legal procedures, including trials.
Sexual assault of children
We do not report the family relationship of the alleged victim and the suspect. This would help identify the victim, possibly placing him or her in the public eye.
Never use the term “incest.” Instead use “sexual abuse of a child” or the precise charge such as “aggravated criminal sexual assault.” Use of the word “incest” narrows the focus, which could lead to identification of the child.
We protect the names of young victims of sexual offenses by describing them by age and gender only.
It is almost impossible to report on some of these cases without giving away the relationship of the victim to the accuser, which puts us at risk of tacitly naming the victim. For example, in writing about a defendant, naming a young girl as the daughter of his girlfriend gives away the victim’s identity, for all practical purposes. When these situations arise, consult an editor.
WITNESSES TO CRIME
We usually don’t identify witnesses to crimes. An exception could be if a witness is not in jeopardy and volunteers or willingly provides information. In such cases, the reporter should seek permission of the witness to use his name and any other identifying facts.
PUBLIC SAFETY COVERAGE GUIDELINE
ASSAULTS OR BATTERIES
We write stories about assaults and batteries if they are serious enough that someone must be hospitalized. We may write stories about other assaults if there is a compelling reason to do so.
In deciding which burglaries to report, gauge the public interest and seriousness of the crime, considering such factors as crime trends, value of goods stolen, whether someone was hurt or notable occupants.
Don't list the exact address. Instead, say a home near 15th and Garfield streets. Details that could aid a burglar in another attempt at the same place should not be used.
We report on cases of domestic violence when the violence is notable for its severity. We generally do not identify victims of domestic violence.
We generally do not write stories on minor crimes unless there is some unusual twist or human interest angle. As outlined by the SPJ Code of Ethics, “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”
We generally don’t write about DUI charges or similar incidents unless it involves a noteworthy person or location.
We write about armed robberies of a business and armed robberies when the weapon is a gun.
We do not write a story about every strong-arm robbery (that means no weapon was involved). We report strong-arm robberies if they seem particularly serious or there's some other newsworthy aspect to the crime.
SEXUAL ABUSE OF A CHILD
We do not write stories on all sexual abuse cases. Our policy is to report convictions in newsworthy cases and follow up with sentencing.
Determining what is newsworthy is based on circumstances, whether the accused is a prominent or public figure and other guidelines typically used in determining coverage.
We report the filing of civil lawsuits involving serious injury or death, suits against public bodies and other unusual circumstances. Diligent efforts must be made to get the other side of the lawsuit from defendants. Amount of damages sought should be included in the story.
In a civil case, anyone can accuse anyone of anything. Truly frivolous lawsuits are rare, but be wary of writing stories based only on court records. Make a genuine effort to reach all the parties involved, especially the defendants and/or their attorneys.
Attorneys typically advise defendants not to talk to the press. Your story should say that. Don't just say they refused to comment. That implies the defendant has something to hide.