We have a time-honored legal tradition in this country and really among free people everywhere: You are innocent until proven guilty. It comes from the Latin, Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat. (The burden of proof is on he who declares, not on he who denies.) It goes back to Roman law.
It’s important not to forget that principle in all aspects of our journalism. And it’s especially easy to assume guilt in headlines, where you may only have a handful of words to convey a complicated set of circumstances.
The headline you see above comes from a Wick paper earlier this month. The story says two local gents were arrested on suspicion of theft, but the headline clearly implies guilt. There has been no trial, yet we have these two guys named, with their photos, under a headline saying they did it.
Many of us have written similar headlines in the rush of deadline. …
Mostly, I think this is just a matter of fairness – particularly in the Internet age. To this day, if you Google the suspects’ names you get a hit for “iPad thieves ID’d.” Time was, that might have appeared in the paper one day and been mostly forgotten the next. Now, it’s there for potential employers, friends and family to see forever more.
Headlines like that can also can create liability problems. Plaintiffs must prove harm and courts generally take into account the totality of the report, which might help when a headline makes assumptions. Laws vary from state to state. Here is a good little primer on avoiding libel. Regardless of legal liability, the point is that you want to do everything in your power to be fair.