Public Editor

Is a crime victim’s own criminal past fair journalistic game?

Criminal records are usually public documents, and one could easily criticize a reporter who chose to gloss over information in the interest of sensitivity.
Criminal records are usually public documents, and one could easily criticize a reporter who chose to gloss over information in the interest of sensitivity. KRT

Witnesses in court are impelled to tell “the whole truth.” Can such a thing exist?

Reader Michael Round emailed me with understandable objections to details in a story about a homicide victim that recently appeared in The Kansas City Star.

“What is The Star’s policy regarding appropriateness and victims of violent crime?” he asked.

He was referring to a story earlier this month about a woman who had been found shot to death. The story quoted a family friend describing her as “a smart and beautiful young woman with a gentle heart,” the single mother of a 1-year-old.

The report also noted she had been the victim in a domestic battery case in 2012, and had been charged with battery herself, against a different person, the next year. That resulted in probation, later revoked when she tested positive for drugs.

Rounds wondered if those details were really necessary now that the young woman is dead. He offered an analogy, which he acknowledged is imperfect:

“If someone is charged with arson, it’s relevant to know the person has been convicted of arson in the past. If someone’s house is intentionally burned down, it’s not relevant to say they had several speeding tickets in the past.”

I’m not a fan of most comparisons, which are often too facile for real-world events. But this point is compelling. Does this victim’s past really give readers meaningful context to her circumstances? One could argue it isn’t relevant.

Others disagree. I’ve spoken to many readers who want The Star to track down how victims are related to their assailants, even when it’s second- or third-hand. Not revealing these connections can make random crime seem like a bigger threat than it really is.

Research supports this conclusion. The Uniform Crime Reporting Program of the FBI collects data about relationships between victims and assailants. Most victims of homicides are acquaintances or closer with their killers, in cases where the relationship is known. Acquaintances are the most-common victims, and wives are second, according to data from 2010.

So we may have an overinflated fear of the danger posed by strangers. And those FBI statistics make it all the more clear why we are so shocked at cases of truly random crime, where bystanders get caught up in violent situations where neither they nor anyone they know is involved.

One could interpret that reporting on a victim’s own past transgressions necessarily implies a certain culpability. You can just see the finger wagging: “If he hadn’t been running with that rough crowd, none of this would have happened.”

A defense may be that criminal records are usually public documents, and one could easily criticize a reporter who chose to gloss over information purely in the interest of sensitivity.

But in this case, the victim was a private citizen, and the investigation hasn’t drawn connections between her past and her death.

Journalists virtually always know more than they choose to report. Here, I understand the concerns of the reader that the details, while not untrue, may have been unnecessary.

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

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