Why didn't Chicago dailies identify the driver of a fatal crash? | Bleader

Why didn't Chicago dailies identify the driver of a fatal crash?


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Scene of the crash
When newspapers withhold information in the name of propriety, it's worth questioning why. Not that the decision isn't sometimes—or even usually—the right one. But the press is in the business of informing. When it refuses to, and the refusal looks more unthinking than judicious, propriety deserves a second look.

The Tribune and Sun-Times both ran stories in their Saturday papers about the fatal crash on Lake Shore Drive the day before. According to authorities, said the papers, an off-duty North Chicago police officer, speeding north in the southbound lanes of that divided expressway in an SUV, hit one car between Diversey and Belmont, injuring its driver, and then plowed into a Jeep, killing both men inside it. The officer was admitted to a nearby hospital with a fractured hip.

The two men in the Jeep were named. The officer wasn't. The two dailies explained why he wasn't in identical language. It was "because he has not been charged with a crime."

So? He was not simply a "person of interest" in an investigation, someone the authorities might soon conclude had nothing to do with the case. He was at the very least a victim of the car crash—someone taken from the scene to a hospital. He was also someone the North Chicago police department immediately put on administrative leave. We learned so much about him—particularly from the Sun-Times, which spoke to the officer's father and to a friend and established that it was his birthday but he wasn't much of a drinker—that withholding his name seemed (to me) prissy.

I sent e-mails to both papers asking why they did. A Tribune editor passed along my inquiry to another editor but I didn't get an explanation from anyone. At the Sun-Times, someone outside editorial speaking for the paper got back to me. I was told it is "long-standing policy" at the Sun-Times to follow the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Minimize harm," this code directs; more specifically it advises, "Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges."

That's good advice; but why categorically interpret language that isn't written categorically? By doing that, the dailies suggest the important question of minimizing harm isn't receiving serious thought.

Once charges are filed, it's Katy bar the door. The cop, Terrell Garrett, was charged Saturday with felony drunken driving and reckless homicide and named in the Sunday papers. I'm surprised that as of Tuesday afternoon he hadn't shown up yet in the Tribune's rolling geek show, Mugs in the News, but maybe that's only because he's been too laid up to be properly photographed.

As Mugs in the News reminds us, "Arrest does not imply guilt, and criminal charges are merely accusations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and convicted." Sure. He's presumed innocent, and also presumed fully deserving of being gawked at! It's hard for me to work backward from the notion that after being charged a suspect presumed innocent has no right to privacy to the idea that before being charged the same suspect is absolutely entitled to it.

I question both propositions.

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