Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspapers as Deliverers of Justice: Two Papers Disagree on Their Roles

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspapers as Deliverers of Justice: Two Papers Disagree on Their Roles

Article excerpt

Newspapers as deliverers of justice

Two schools of thought have sprung up recently concerning the publishing of photos of those charged with crimes.

A Florida judge recently tried to involve a local newspaper as deliverer of justice, but the paper refused to be the messenger.

In December, Escambia County Judge William White, following a trend toward "public humiliation" sentences, ordered 12 people convicted of misdemeanors to buy classified advertising which include their photos and the charges against them.

The charges included soliciting for immoral purposes, drunken driving and shoplifting.

The Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal, however, decided not to accept the ads, which would have cost defendants $72.40 (on Sundays.) The court ordered the ads must be at least one column wide and two inches tall and include the defendant's name, picture, charge and plea.

"Although we understand Judge White's intent, the newspaper as a matter of policy does not wish to become a vehicle for court-ordered public humiliation," Kenneth Andrews, News Journal publisher said in a prepared statement.

"The advertising columns of the newspaper are open for free and voluntary expression within reasonable bounds of propriety and, if the ads ordered by Judge White are adopted, other courts may consider involuntary newspaper advertising as a potential method of punishing defendants."

White told the News Journal he considered the photo order harsh, but said he did it to help deter the annual holiday rise in crime.

Under the law, White cannot resentence the defendants even though the paper is not publishing the ads.

"I'm not going to force people to do something they can't do," White said. "I've asked my secretary to call the defendants and tell them that I'm waiving the advertising requirements."

Any other part of the defendants' sentences will remain in effect, White said.

In contrast, the Standard Times of New Bedford, Mass., has begun voluntarily publishing photos and names of those arraigned on drug-related charges, amidst cheers and jeers from readers.

The Standard Times has always published daily news accounts of all people arraigned in the local district court but, as of Nov. 14, all the drug-related arrests are placed under a special photo section called "Drug Watch."

Editor James M. Ragsdale wrote in an article announcing the feature that the "courts and their documents are loaded with aliases and phony addresses . . . But it's tough, real tough, to fake a face."

He said that by placing face recognition in the hands of the reader, the photos may act as a deterrent because "buyers don't want to be recognized by their neighbors, family, friends or employers as they come and go."

"I don't want to debate that publisher [of the Penascola News Journal] but I find it curious that he would refuse the advertising and that he would label it humiliation," Ragsdale said. He pointed out that the newspaper is obligated to take other court-ordered advertising such as divorce or foreclosure announcements, which may be considered humiliating to those involved.

Criticism about the feature has included the charge of unfairness since the photos are of people only accused, not convicted.

"What we are doing is applying news judgment to the subject of drugs. …

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