By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Paul Bass on (not) naming names

After I posted an item earlier today on the New Haven Independent’s decision not to identify Raymond Clark, the “person of interest” in the murder of Yale University student Annie Le, I invited editor Paul Bass to comment on his decision.

Bass replied by e-mail, telling me that “you’re so right — it’s futile. But we wanted to be consistent.” He added that “we originally broke the story about this suspect. The national media said a student was the suspect. We reported that, no, it was a lab tech, and we gave details that wouldn’t lead the public to be able to find him. We had the name pretty early, and some good info, but decided to go with the basic story.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Bass explained, “We do have quite a strong policy about withholding names. In our routine police stories, we rarely name people (non-public figures) arrested unless there’s a compelling reason, or we’ve gotten their side. We might be wrong, for sure. Lotta back and forth. Maybe a futile high horse thing. Don’t know.”

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  1. LFNeilson

    A futile high-horse thing? I don’t think so. In an era when news organizations are suffering from a loss of credibility, there’s only one remedy and that is for everyone involved to hold to high ethical standards. It is frustrating when others shed their ethical considerations, but the Independent at least has shown the right way to handle such a case. Yes, some people are paying attention.

  2. Kudos to Mr. Bass.

  3. Newshound

    Congratulations, again, to Paul Bass.

  4. edward

    You should maintain this policy. Ray Clark has not been arrested in this case, but only taken in for a DNA sample and to answer police questions. He may have just been in the lab when the student disappeared and we wait to see what the police say as a result of the DNA results. Arrest and formal charge is one thing, “person of interest” is another. The press got burned during the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the Anthrax attack when people were identified as responsible who later it was shown clearly were not.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I admire Bass’ stance, yet at the same time I wonder if he’s taking it to a bit of an extreme. The Jewell case is actually the perfect analogy. From what I can recall, the FBI never named Jewell in a straightforward, on-the-record manner. Instead, it leaked his name in the hopes that media coverage would flush out more information. When it didn’t pan out, the press was left holding the bag. (Not that I’m sympathetic.)

      In this case, the police have publicly identified Clark as a “person of interest” — in a press release and at a news conference that was covered by television. In a sense, the Independent is substituting its judgment for that of the police departmnet. Maybe that’s a good thing. In any case, it’s a fascinating dilemma.

  5. I think it’s the right thing to do not to name a “person of interest.”

    But not releasing the names of people arrested? I think that’s a public disservice.

    Taxpayers pay a lot of money for police protection, and the state, through the police, has awesome power. There’s an important role for the press to play in bringing as much transparency to crime and courts as possible. Names are a vital part of that process.

  6. Ed Weintrob

    We had a similar policy for almost 30 years at The Brooklyn (NY) Paper, a broadsheet weekly — no names in routine police blotter coverage unless we took the trouble to at least try for the suspect’s side of the story. After all, how likely were we to report that the suspect was later exonerated (in a routine case)?

    My gut feeling that our policy was correct was confirmed when my editor explained it at a newspaper convention. Another editor said the policy was stupid: After all, if the cops made an arrest, the suspect was probably guilty.


  7. Dan Kennedy

    Howard: I’m not sure you’re responding to the specific situation here — taken into custody (OK, arrested), but not charged with a crime.

    What’s the Batavian’s call?

  8. Ed Weintrob

    Update from Hofstra University on Long Island): Four men arrested for a gang rape on a suburban campus, their names and photos widely published and broadcast.

    Tonight, the “victim” says there was no rape. The DA immediately releases the men.

    Ah, but their “crime” … destined to live on in Googleland.

    Just like the movies. In Ron Howard’s “The Paper” (1994), the young murder suspects were proven innocent between budget meeting and press-time. But the publisher wouldn’t stop the presses to update the story, reasoning: They’re guilty today, they’ll be innocent tomorrow. And The Paper’s readers will eat it up.

  9. Amused

    Local papers routinely publish names that they get out of a quick and dirty look at the police log, but never follow up.

    Here’s an example of the damage it can do. By the will of the people, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is now a civil infraction, in the same category as jaywalking. the most you get is a ticket and the pot is confiscated.

    The cops don’t like it, so if someone has less than an ounce, they look for something else to charge them with. One approach is to charge anyone with pot wrapped in more than one package with possession with intent to distribute. Apparently, it is not unusual for a quantity of pot to be bagged in individual baggies for use with blunt cigars. So, if someone buys ore than one of those and gets caught with marijuana in his possession, the cop decides the multiple packages means the suspect intended to distribute the marijuana, and possession with intent is an arrestable offense. The person who only committed a civil infraction is then booked, mugged, fingerprinted and listed on the police log where the local paper lists him as having been arrested for “possession of class D with intent to distribute.” He’s branded a drug-dealer in the paper, which never follows up to find that the case was ultimately dismissed since it was the legal equivalent of littering.

    Unfortunately, too, police logs are often written by young reporters or interns who have yet to learn that some police officers routinely lie in their reports. t

  10. Dan, The Batavian wouldn’t name a person of interest.

    Once arrested, yes.

    Our policy is to run every press release we get. (there is not available here a traditional blotter). We name names. We withhold the names of 17-year-olds (which the police routinely release) for minor offenses.

    We request mug shots for what we deem to be serious offenses. Also, we run the mug shot of every accused drug dealer.

    Today, we published the name of a 17-year-old who admitted to rape. We had also published his name when he was arrested. But I left out the name today of a 17-year-old accused of egging a store clerk, just reported the alleged crime.

    Today, we had a fatal fire. The local newspaper ran the victim’s name based on a neighbor’s say-so. We did not run the name until the police confirmed the name and that the next-of-kin were notified.

    All I’m saying is we try to have a consistent policy.

    Because of our policy of running every press release we get from law enforcement, I recently had a situation where I had to run the name of an advertiser who was seriously injured in an accident. He was charged with DWI. I treated it like any other press release. In other words, I confined the report to just what was contained in the PR.

    I’ve been trying to follow more cases through the legal system. I find readers do want to know what happens to some of these people who are arrested.

    It’s hard because there are nine or 10 courts to cover in this county. I only get the docket regular for County Court.

    I want to improve that.

    In spending more time in court, I’m confirming something we all in the local media suspected: Not all arrests, even felony arrests, are reported to the media by local law enforcement.

    At a minimum, I believe all felony arrests should be reported and the media should make some effort to follow up on the cases.

    Court reporting is fascinating, too. These cases are indeed not as open and shut as a simple blotter report might make it seem. We’ve got a couple of cases going on right now involving deaths where conventional wisdom is the accused are guilty. I’m not so sure. As much as I know about both cases, if I were on the jury, I’d have reasonable doubt at this point.

    We’ve also had some interesting reactions to coverage: When a former football star was arrested, a number of people accused us of violating his privacy and sensationalizing the story (though the report was straight facts from the PR). And in another case, we covered a guilty plea by a young man and his finance said we had no right to even show up in the court room.

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