Public Editor

Identifying criminal suspects can pose tricky journalistic questions

Many people accused of a crime are not subsequently convicted. And we all know that the Internet’s long memory makes it much more difficult for anyone to escape the shadow of the past, for better or for worse.
Many people accused of a crime are not subsequently convicted. And we all know that the Internet’s long memory makes it much more difficult for anyone to escape the shadow of the past, for better or for worse. The Kansas City Star

I often feel uncomfortable when reading news coverage about any person who is accused of a crime.

Why? Because many of those people are not subsequently convicted. And we all know that the Internet’s long memory makes it much more difficult for anyone to escape the shadow of the past, for better or for worse.

Journalists wrestle every day with questions about readers’ right to know about potential public dangers versus individuals’ right to privacy.

A good example came last week, when police released information about a search they were conducting on an Overland Park house. A story on KansasCity.com April 2 and in print the next day was full of details. A woman living there was suspected of stealing and reselling high-end jewelry and clothing items. She had two previous convictions for theft under similar circumstances. The house was appraised at more than $900,000. She ran a website marketing items to a “hip, mod-mommy audience.”

Yet the story also noted that The Star was not naming the woman at that time because charges had not yet been filed. The next morning, police named Kelli Jo Bauer and filed a single count of theft against her. At that time, The Star published her name and booking mug shot.

Normally, The Star’s policy is not to identify private citizens who are suspects in a crime before they are charged. But not all media sources follow suit. In fact, several people posted links on KansasCity.com’s story to other websites that were naming Bauer as soon as the news broke.

I am in favor of The Star policy in general. But there are times when it is broken with good reason, especially when sharing a person’s identity may prevent misadventure. Another example from last week is such an instance: The March 30 Amber Alert for a missing 13-year-old girl from Henry County in western Missouri.

Law enforcement asked the media to disseminate information that would help find the child, including the name of the man suspected of taking her, Raymond C. Vallia. KansasCity.com published names and photos of both before they were found later that afternoon.

Later, the sheriff’s office said the girl had gone willingly with Vallia, with whom she had an online relationship. Looking back, I’m sure everyone wishes her name and photo had never been disclosed, as she was clearly a victim.

Even if Vallia doesn’t end up seeing a conviction, I can’t imagine anyone would fault the media for identifying him during the search.

But I keep coming back to the question of the many people who are found not guilty after due process. Editors generally look to coverage of the original charges and try to give news of the outcome equal play.

Can The Star or any other media outlet really ever make the story of an innocent accused go away? Of course not — and this obviously isn’t an argument that all news coverage of a crime should wait until the legal outcome is decided.

In the words of a senior editor with whom I was discussing the Amber Alert, once the genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back. Sometimes unwanted attention can’t be avoided.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com.

  Comments