WESTERHOLD: Compromising on kids' names

Surely everyone has at one time or another felt pulled in two different directions of equal and opposing value. Such is the c
Matt Westerhold
May 24, 2010

Surely everyone has at one time or another felt pulled in two different directions of equal and opposing value.

Such is the case with a decision I made several months ago to change a long-standing practice employed by the Register and by many other newspapers across the country: withholding the names of juveniles arrested and charged with juvenile crimes.

The Register changed that practice and in January and began printing names of juvenile crime suspects in the daily police log and in news stories and briefs, and many readers supported the change.

Some of those supporters wrote to say they never understood exactly why names were withheld and others believed publishing the names might serve to deter juvenile crime.

Other readers, however, wrote letters to the editor expressing their vehement opposition to the change. One letter-writer took me to task, saying I had not done enough research and did not have a clear understanding of the issue.

To me, the issue seems clear: A newspaper's job is to fully inform its readers. Reporters and editors should never withhold information they have from news stories.

I still have difficulty reconciling that obligation with the more common belief and practice that juveniles should be given a break and not be named in news stories when they are charged with crimes.

Erie County Family Court Judge Robert DeLamatre, who wrote a guest column on this page expressing his opposition to the change, and Marlene Boas, a child welfare specialist with the Sandusky Schools, both spoke to me about the naming practice.

I understand the logic of the arguments they make -- that naming children in crime stories unfairly burdens them -- but my reasoning for making the change was never more than meeting our obligation to fully inform readers.

That's my high horse and I want to keep riding it.

But readers may have noticed that our daily police log has changed once again, to reflect the previous practice. Now, for example, as before, a log entry involving a juvenile reads: Boy, 14, charged with unruliness.

I have found what I hope is a happy medium, even though I still have some ambivalence.

Police blotter items have news value that limits them to one sentence, or two, at the most. Since reporters do not research these incidents beyond a quick review of the police reports, as a journalist I can live with the compromise that juvenile names should be withheld from the blotter.

But when police charge a juvenile and the circumstances of the arrest has news value that warrants a story, editors and reporters will review the information and decide whether a juvenile crime suspect should be identified.

In the end, that decision will be made by me, or future managing editors at the Register.