Despite policies, media keep naming uncharged suspects

Over the years, I’ve written many times about local news organizations’ ethics regarding naming people who police say are suspects in a crime, but have yet to be arrested or charged.

Almost every news organization in the Twin Cities has a policy against naming suspects, and almost every one ignores it when it’s convenient to do so. This is not generally how ethics in journalism works, and it doesn’t seem to matter how many times news organizations damage people.

The mysterious disappearance of a boy in Crystal is the latest test case. Earlier in the week, Crystal police identified a family member as a possible suspect in the disappearance. But they didn’t have evidence to bring any charges.

News organizations — not MPR News, it should be pointed out — were quick to headline the Crystal police department’s assertion, ignoring the ethics involved.

It’s not uncommon for police to “smoke out” a suspect by leaking fragments of information to the media, but this puts the news media in the job that is for the police, who usually will note that a person “is not being cooperative” with them, providing the innuendo.

For the record, applying rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is what police often consider “being uncooperative.”

One would think news organizations would have learned their lesson in the 2012 killing of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker. Police originally identified Ryan Larson as a suspect and, again, news organizations dropped their policies about naming suspects.

There was just one problem. Larson didn’t do it.

Larson then sued several news organizations for defamation. The suits were settled.

Maybe the Crystal boy’s relatives had something to do with the disappearance, maybe they didn’t. It’s up to the police to make the determination and up to a prosecutor to file charges.

In the meantime, news organizations should at least indicate why they’re naming an uncharged suspect in one crime, but not in another.