Whether we report things like gender, skin color, ethnicity, or religion varies from case to case. We are always doing a new evaluation. Privacy, readability, integrity and news value all play a role in this, says Daan Smink, editor-in-chief and news development.
Take for example the school shooting in Nashville last week. Shooter Hale was registered as a female. That sounds newsworthy, because a woman who commits a mass shooting is special. And as a reader, she wants to get as complete a picture of what happened as possible.
Still, we had doubts about that entry and eventually deleted it. “There was still a lot to be cleared up in that case,” says Daan. “Hale’s passport said female. But on LinkedIn, Hale identified himself as male. We still didn’t have the facts straight.”
Details can lead to wrong assumptions
Also, mentioning a detail can sometimes have a stigmatizing effect. Furthermore, it can lead to assumptions that are not necessarily correct. Mentioning it (already) made readers think Hale’s trans identity had something to do with the crime. “But we don’t know that yet. That’s why we removed it,” explains Daan.
But why is the gender of the suspect or perpetrator included in crime reports? Daan: “You want to give readers as complete a picture as possible. That makes it more interesting and gives the reader additional information.”
Writing just “Hale” or “the shooter” wasn’t an option, Daan says. When we write about people, the most used synonym is gender. “Writing ‘Hale’ or ‘the shooter’ all the time doesn’t read very well. If you’re just talking about ‘one person,’ I think we’re going a little overboard. It has to be decent to read.”
Krijg meldingen als we kijkjes achter de schermen publiceren
Skin color sometimes leads to discussion
Editors also sometimes have concerns about sensitive issues such as ethnicity, skin color, nationality, and religious beliefs. We don’t have a ready-made policy for every possible news situation.
Daan: “Usually we don’t report such details. Because they are irrelevant but can have a stigmatizing effect or can also lead to assumptions.”
But there are exceptions: some fugitive criminals, for example. Or if religion or nationality is important to the perpetrator’s motive. “So it’s good to mention this for news understanding. Suppose a Ukrainian shoots a Russian in the Netherlands, then that may be important.”
“A person can be infected with a bad name for the rest of his life”
Then there is another personal trait that our readers regularly notice. We typed Hale’s full name, not anonymizing his last name down to the first letter.
With foreign news, NU.nl writes the names of the suspects and perpetrators as the foreign media usually do. “Because if all the foreign media, especially in a big country like the United States, contains the full name, then it’s a bit contrived if we just write the initial of the last name,” says Daan.
Also, if innocent or after serving a sentence, the person will usually want to rebuild a life in that country. Most likely not in the Netherlands. “So we don’t hurt them by mentioning the full name.”
For Dutch suspects and those convicted of crimes, we generally abbreviate. “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Someone may be infected with a bad name for life, while this person may not be guilty.” And in the case of the condemned? “They also have the right to a life when they are released.”
“Sometimes criminals think the full name is fine”
There are exceptions to the rule. “You can’t get away with famous Dutch people. So you use the full name.”
This can also be the case with criminals. “Some criminals think it’s okay if your name is spelled out in full. Then we consult with your lawyer.”
For suspects still wanted, we estimate what is sensible on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t want to be the right hand of the police. We are here to control the authorities and bring the news. That is our journalistic task”.
“But if we believe that someone represents a direct threat to society, we will write the full names. So the public interest takes precedence over the privacy of the suspect.” And then skin color can suddenly be important to mention.