Crime reporting

When a crime is committed, both the criminal justice authorities and the media have the responsibility to inform the public. Some criminal acts attract more attention than others, particularly heinous crimes, crimes involving unusual circumstances or famous people. Other type of crime might have consequences over wider range of people’s lives – misuse of public funds, environmental crime, etc. These can be distinguished as “high-profile crime”, “crime of public interest” or a mix of both.

At the initial stage of the criminal proceedings, information about what has happened is most limited while interest is highest. Media rush to publish breaking news while investigative authorities struggle to find more evidence to solve the case. Information, about a crime or an incident, spreads fast. It can be released either by authorities, hospital or emergency staff or by witnesses via social media. Sometimes media investigations may also reveal crimes. Both authorities and media engage in reconstructing the sequence of events each using their own means and pursuing their own goals – revealing the crime or getting a good story. Versions and suspects are often publicly discussed at a point when definitive information is scarce, which poses a danger of wrongfully accusing people, exposing the private life of those involved or jeopardising the next stages of the investigation.

It is difficult to set strict disclosure rules that encompass the wide variety of individual cases. Therefore, what can be done is to assess each case individually based on certain principles that provide the necessary balance between the right of the public to know and the right of those involved to privacy and to a presumption of innocence. Pursuing the public interest should be the leading red line when deciding what to disclose.

The public needs to know

Media seek unusual facts and circumstances, interesting
or significant people or life stories.

It is important for criminal justice authorities to know which crimes may provoke higher interest than others. Journalists and, respectively, the public seek unusual, interesting, or significant news or news that tells people’s life stories (or stories that impact people’s lives). Moreover, in smaller communities, crimes are considered more newsworthy than in, for example, big cities. Therefore, authorities should be prepared to inform the public via media about what has happened and what are they doing to solve the crime. It is essential for the public to receive official and authentic information. Otherwise, the high public interest might drive alternative investigations that might not always bring up reliable information, or, if misinterpreted, can wrongfully incriminate people or invade their private lives. Authorities typically have established communication rules and channels. Do not hesitate to use them as often as possible.

It is a good practice for your department to develop a media strategy for investigations that are expected to provoke high interest. The elements of such a strategy that can be particularly helpful are:
1) involving your department’s senior officers and media relations professionals, 2) judging the specific details that might influence the investigation or pose a risk to violation of rights, and 3) setting tailored rules for communicating with the media, for example, if you or your colleagues are put in the position to confirm facts that media have obtained from their own sources.

This press release concerns the death of a child in a smaller town, which a newspaper exposed the day after the first press release. The case caused speculation on the internet and in social media regarding, among other things, the identity of the suspects. Several persons where falsely pointed out as perpetrators. Although there may be overriding reasons for being restrictive with the disclosure of information in these types of cases, this case may serve as an example of how restrictiveness could lead to alternative investigations which produce incorrect information and false accusations.

Two arrested on suspicion of causing another person’s death in Karlstad

Published: 2020-01-31 08:37:33

Two people were arrested on Thursday evening on suspicion of causing another person’s death, after a person was found dead in a home in Karlstad.
Preliminary investigation leader is chamber prosecutor Anna Eriksson. She cannot provide more information at this early stage of the investigation. When further information is available, it will be provided in a press release.

Two Detainees in Karlstad

Published: 2020-02-02 16:18:17

Karlstad District Court has today arrested two people on suspicion of causing another person’s death, a felony.
Prosecution must be brought no later than 14 February.
The court furthermore imposed professional secrecy, which means that no information on the case can be provided at present.

Freedom of expression

Justice authorities generally enjoy the freedom of expression in the frames of their professional ethics.

You can enjoy the freedom of expression with some necessary restrictions coming from your position. First, it is important to distinguish between talking in your official and in your personal capacity. When representing the public body you work for, you should follow the respective professional and ethical principles, observe non-biased language, and avoid stressing involved people’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, special skills, etc.

Journalists might also approach you to comment “off the record” and then publish your words citing you as “unidentified source” or “quoting unofficial information”. Bear in mind that by doing so you can violate professional standards and place your colleagues in a position to confirm or reject sensitive information.

The article indicated that a police officer with insight in the investigation has declared a person a suspect, whom the police did not officially want to announce as suspected. This could cause problems for the investigation as well as for the colleagues of the anonymous officer. The source has furthermore provided highly sensitive information related to the victims

Lying dead in bed

No person was yet formally suspected of killing the woman and her baby, but according to a police source, one trace in the investigation is pointing to the ex- boyfriend.

– He is highly interesting, says the source.
During the day, the man will be heard by police.
– We have located him and will talk to him today. But he is not suspected of any crime, we only hear him for information, says Åsa Claesson.

Yesterday, the police could not say when the woman and the child died, but according to information from a source with insight into the investigation, they must have been dead for several days before they were found.

Identifying a person

The information you publicise should not allow for people to be identified by either mentioning their names or a list of details that, if put together, might help the community name a person.

When disclosing information about a crime, the personality of the potential perpetrator is a subject of immense attention. When announcing a suspected person, you should provide the information as aggregated as possible and avoid disclosing any identifiable data. You can cross-check the facts to be disclosed, verifying, as far as possible, that taken together they cannot lead to the disclosure of the person’s identity, e.g., by using public and easily accessible information such as social network profiles or corporate websites.

NOTE: Identifiable data is all types of information that, let alone or combined, can directly or indirectly lead to the identification of an individual. That includes:

Names – if not necessary, names, or even initials, should not be disclosed at this stage.

Age – if not necessary, age should not be disclosed at this stage.

Ethnicity – it is not advisable to refer to one’s ethnicity, especially if it is not self-defined.

Gender – it should be considered if, disclosed together with other information, gender might lead
to the identification of a person.

Place of residence – it is preferable to specify a larger area (e.g., the province or the district instead of the municipality or the city/village), especially if the place is a small locality.

Occupation or position – do not disclose unless it is directly related to the crime at hand.

Job function or title – if not necessary, it should not be disclosed at this stage.

The crew of the police helicopter blinded in Prague

Police report from September 2nd, 2021

Yesterday evening the three-man crew of the police helicopter in Cherny Most was blinded with a laser pointer during an emergency flight. At about 8.40 p.m., an initially unknown person pointed a green beam on the helicopter at Vasatkova Street. The pilot stated that he had to carry out several changes of attitude because of the severe impairment. From the air, the place of origin was identified as the balcony of an apartment on the third floor of an apartment building. During the inspection of the apartment in question, the supporting forces met a 36-year-old man who, after briefly denying it, is said to have confessed about the use of a laser pointer. He handed the pointer over to the emergency services. Criminal proceedings were initiated against the suspect for dangerous interference in air traffic.

The police should check if the presented details are sufficient for identifying the alleged perpetrator. They should consider if the information, namely:

at least three-floor apartment building at Vasatkova Street where a 36-year man stays

…is sufficient for the identification of the person, or, potentially, for the misidentification of another person who was not related to the incident.

Public reference to guilt

Authorities should avoid referring to a person suspected or accused of committing a crime as to a proven perpetrator as this is still a subject to prove. Often this is a matter of wording that might prejudice the public and/or the court.

When announcing a person’s affiliation with a crime, make sure you use neutral language observing the presumption of innocence. Mentioning previous arrests or convictions for similar or for completely different crimes imposes on the public the impression that a person is more likely to have committed the crime (unless the person is declared wanted because then it becomes a matter of public interest) without adding value to the information on the specific crime. It is again essential to carefully mind the words you choose to use in your statements.

Both the headline and the body text refer with certainty to the person’s guilt. In addition, the media notice stresses upon the previous criminal background of the accused person without any evident relation between the previous offences and the crimes he is charged for. Moreover, the word “recidivist” bears the meaning of “habitual criminal” and rather prejudices readers about the person’s undoubtful guilt.

Officers of Capo Testa Police Department arrested a 29-year-old man from Capo Testa with a criminal record and conviction, who committed three home thefts in the resort town

At the beginning of the week, three complaints were filed with the police department by victims: a welding machine disappeared from the house of a 54-year-old man from Santa Teresa di Gallura; two women complained that money had been stolen from their homes – a € 20 banknote and an amount of € 350, placed in a purse. As a result of the immediate operative and search activities, the police officers identified the perpetrator – a 29-year-old local recidivist – on “hot leads”. He had handed the copper parts of the welding machine to a post for recycling ferrous and non-ferrous metals, the remaining parts were returned to the owner. The stolen money was spent – lost in a gambling hall. Pre-trial proceedings have been instituted in the cases. Work continues at the Capo Testa Police Station.

Disclosing images of the crime scene, evidence, or suspects

Visual materials are an attractive illustration when reporting about a crime. These should, however, be avoided unless there is a legitimate reason and, if there is one, make sure data protection rules are observed.

When publishing official information through their own media channels, images and videos are admissible to illustrate the story if they serve a legitimate purpose (such as tracing fugitives, searching for information or witnesses), observe data and privacy protection standards and are proportionate to the pursued goal. When releasing CCTV footage, body-worn video or images for investigation purposes, make sure you avoid publishing shocking crime scene views, photos of suspected or arrested people in handcuffs of other means of restraint, sensitive images (such as affected crime victims or crying witnesses). Photos of children and other vulnerable persons should not be published.
All visual materials should include information about copyright holders and terms of use.

The film depicts heavily armed police officers arresting a suspect, and it strongly indicates guilt.
The film does not serve any legitimate public interest such as tracing fugitives or searching for information or witnesses

Italy police release video showing arrest of alleged ‘Mafia Capitale’ boss

Italian police have released a video showing the arrest of the alleged criminal boss of a group said to have bribed or extorted its way to lucrative public contracts in Rome.
Rodolphe Rossi was arrested on Tuesday as he drove his car down a small countryside road outside the capital.

Communities can help

Media and the community can support your work if you ask them to. Wanted persons, witnesses or evidence might come up in response to authorities’ request for help.

Within certain investigations, you might have to ask the public for help. It might be for capturing a fugitive, searching for a stolen car or other property, or looking for witnesses or evidence. In other cases, you might need to disclose more information in order to protect public safety or health, which is often called “information of public interest”. CCTV camera footage of potential suspects or witnesses or photos of evidence and (parts of) crime scenes can be disclosed for police purposes. As a rule, such procedures are laid down in the national legislation. Make sure you consult them, as well as your office’s press official, if available.
If you happen to meet inaccurately reported information or information violating these principles, you might publish refutation or correction through your own communications channels or try to resolve the issue with the respective media or the professional organisation it affiliates to.

Wanted person: HEIGL, Stanislav
CRIME: Murder, grievous bodily injury
SEX: Male
DATE OF BIRTH: July 21, 1990
SPOKEN LANGUAGES: Slovak, English, Swedish
STATE OF CASE: Ongoing investigation

On November 12 last year a 10-year-old girl was tragically killed in a gang related drive-by assassination in Frankfurt, Germany. The child was not the target instead did she come in the way between the perpetrators and those for whom the attack was intended. The suspects opened fire from a car using at least two automatic firearms. Several people have been arrested but the German authorities are still looking for the suspect Stanislav Heigl, who they believe might be hiding in Turkey.
This matter is of the highest priority and it is of great importance that this person can be arrested.

Robbery against kiosk in Odense: Perpetrator fled without getting anything with him

Police are looking for a 35- to 40-year-old man with short, black hair. He has a light complexion and is plainly built. The man was at the time of the crime wearing brown t-shirt and long trousers.

The two “Wanted person” announcements differ in the amount of personal details revealed. Judging on what to disclose should be based on the gravity of the offence and on the “public interest” of such information – information should be sufficient to protect people and to help them identify the suspected perpetrator. In the first case, more information is shared about an armed suspect who is suspected in committing a serious crime and might pose danger to other people, while the second case concerns a less serious crime – an attempted robbery with no material damages.

Learning about a crime

Cross-check for accuracy all initial information
you receive about a crime.

Official police notices, social media entries, and press conferences are a regular and reliable source of criminal information but their timing usually does not allow you to report first. This may prompt you to use alternative sources to get access to primary information such as emergency units, hospital staff, or personal contacts. It is essential to cross-check such information for accuracy in order to report the facts as completely and precisely as possible and avoid misidentification of people. Always search for alternative sources, preferably official ones, to confirm the authenticity of your story.

To be on the safe side, you should report only facts and avoid assumptions and opinions. These should be facts that cannot be contested in court.

The article has incorrectly pointed out a man as the perpetrator by claiming his confession.
The information was incorrect and had not been cross-checked with the public authority prior to publication.

Taken in for hearing regarding the murder of Axel

Published 15:30

According to information from Aftonbladet, a teenage boy has today admitted involvement in the murder of rapper Axel. He contacted the police himself. Today he was brought in for questioning.

Updated 16:30

The information about a boy having called the police and admitted involvement in the murder is rejected by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Sources of information

Use with caution alternatives to official sources.

When reporting about a crime, you usually have to write about a past event. So, in parallel with the investigating authorities, you have to reconstruct events. To do that, you may approach different sources and obtain information that is complementary or contradictory. It is important that you distinguish between reliable and non-reliable information by citing only indisputable facts and cross-checking and referencing all information that is dubious or contradictory.

Verifying the information by interviewing witnesses, suspects or their relatives should be avoided. If you still believe such interviews are necessary, you should prepare in advance. Be sympathetic and make sure the words you use do not suggest guilt. Always make sure you have your interviewees’ consent and do not push them to speak if they are not ready to. Bear in mind that due to the stressful situation, many people may not be able to judge clearly if they should speak to the media or not. In addition, a lack of experience with public speaking might place them in an embarrassing situation. Do not ask questions referring to the suspects’ personal life unless it is directly linked to the crime (for example, avoid asking questions about the person’s childhood or personal relationships). It is advisable to always inform your interviewee that what they say will be published and may have a certain impact on their own personal life or the lives of those they speak about.

The evening papers published interviews with suspected killers

Late on Monday evening, a 19-year-old girl was found stabbed to death in Åkersberga. Early the next morning, her younger brother was arrested as a suspect.

Yesterday, both Expressen and Aftonbladet published interviews with the mother of the murdered 19-year-old girl in Landskrona. [The mother] was then arrested on suspicion of the act. Before the police took her into custody, she had had time to speak to both Aftonbladet and Expressen.

Letting relatives speak up in a murder case at an early stage may be associated with certain risks. This is well illustrated by a case like this where most indications were pointing in the direction that the crime was honor-related.

Citing unnamed sources

You, as a journalist, may have your own contacts within the police or emergency units, who might be tempted to comment unofficially on the incidents or crimes they work on. Publishing such information as coming from “unnamed sources” brings up certain questions about its reliability and requires further verification. Make sure your source agrees to be cited anonymously and always seek your editor’s approval for releasing such information.

Regardless of what information you have access to, you should control what you publish or broadcast. You, as a reporter, photographer or editor, should be aware of the ethical rules and principles related to the covering of criminal news and your responsibility as the person that decides what to publicise.

The sources with alleged insight disclose highly sensitive non-definitive facts about the case and the victim. This could be considered contrary to ethical principles regarding publication.

How Lisa was Murdered

Lisa Assali, 20, died from two stab wounds to the chest.
The killer may also have desecrated her body before she was cut up.
This is, according to sources with insight into the investigation, shown by the preliminary autopsy.

The authorities should know first

If you reveal a crime during a journalistic investigation, avoid publishing it until you are sure that the relevant authorities have been notified and that they, in turn, have notified the persons involved and their families.

Crimes are sometimes revealed in the course of your journalistic investigations. Make sure that before you publish, police have been notified and, in turn, they have notified the victims, their families or other people involved. People should not learn from the media that an incident has happened to their close ones.

Identifying and referring to a suspect

The media should always clearly distinguish between ‘suspected of committing a crime’ and ‘guilty of a crime’. Suspicion based on unofficial sources is not sufficient for revealing an individual’s identity.

If the authorities have not released the name of the suspect yet, it is not recommended to publish information that could in any way make the person identifiable.

You have to clearly indicate the status of the person as a suspect or accused person, using for example “the alleged perpetrator” or “the suspect/accused of the crime”. Presenting information in a way that implies or strongly suggests guilt should be avoided. The fact that a person related to a crime does not have a clean criminal record should not be published as it is not a relevant for the person’s guilt and can only prejudice the public. The same applies to personal characteristics such as ethnic origin, religion, mental status or any other special features.

Wording in general is of extreme importance when covering criminal news. The careful selection of words should be your leading principle both when reporting and commenting on the facts. Catchy headlines can not only be judging to a person, who has not yet been found guilty, but may also incite fear among certain groups of the population (for example a mass fight is reported as a riot).