Ontario Argus Observer Managing Editor Kristi Albertson asked me a tough question last week. (In the future, I sound much smarter if you ask me something easy, Kristi…)
She wanted to know whether she should name a juvenile who had been charged with stealing a car. The little darling is 16 and has a criminal history, apparently.
I told her the answer has more to do with community standards and journalistic ethics than matters of law. States differ on what they allow law enforcement to release. In the end, Kristi found the state of Oregon doesn’t allow release of juvenile names. But what if it had? Just because the local constables tell you a 16-year-old stole a car, doesn’t mean you ought to name the kid.
The reason is that kids are not adults, obviously. They do stupid things. They often grow out of the turmoil in their teenage years. In our society, we give them certain leeway to learn from their mistakes. We often try them for their crimes in separate judicial proceedings. Usually, they don’t suffer the same consequences as adults committing similar crimes.
Printing the name of a juvenile is a type of consequence. Particularly in the Internet age, those allegations stick with offenders, sometimes forever. In most cases, it just doesn’t feel right to me to blast the name of a 16-year-old — not only in the local newspaper but to the world at large — by posting it in a virtual file cabinet that never goes away. I strongly urge you to err on the side of protecting juveniles…
Now, having said that, some crimes are so heinous and the attention so powerful that the names will inevitably slip out. For example, though Dylan Klebold was only 17 when he and a misguided friend shot up Columbine High School in 1999, there is no point in protecting him. His name was published widely.
Some states and countries specifically bar the media from publishing the names of juvenile offenders. (And would that all state press associations had intelligent information online like this from the Pennsylvania association.) The rest of us might have to make a judgment call.