You have the right to remain silent
Years and years ago, at a paper far, far away, a series labeled “The Killer’s Trail” presented the details of homicides committed by one of our early serial killers. The main difficulty the copy desk had with the stories was that the perpetrator had not actually been convicted of any of the homicides — in fact, had not even been charged with some of them at the time of publication.
Some of these rumblings reached the editor’s ear, and he responded to the concerns by posting a memo to the staff saying that the man named in the stories “is so deep in trouble he’ll never have time to sue us.” Would God that I had preserved a copy of that collector’s item, if only to watch a lawyer go pale and hyperventilate.
The ethics of the craft demand that you take the presumption of innocence seriously. Unless you have Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, you do not know for a fact that that person committed that criminal act. So you keep the name of the person accused of the crime separate from the account of the criminal act. That is, you write about the circumstances of the robbery or the homicide or whatever, but you introduce the name of the suspect only in the sentence that says that the suspect has been charged with the crime.
With a little practice, this can be accomplished without looking awkward, and the Constitution is respected. I realize that this can look a little fussy in an age in which you can apparently publish anything about anyone on the Internet, fact, rumor, or unfounded supposition, without fear of legal repercussions or, for that matter, shame. But the day will surely come when it will be helpful to have a few shreds of ethics to wrap around yourself.
More on the language of crime reporting:
Suspect sentences: You will often see news accounts of crimes that say something like “the suspect fled” before anyone has been identified. No, the robber fled, or the shooter fled, but you do not have a suspect until an identified person has come under suspicion.
I’m not fond of the popularity of person of interest as a euphemism for Person the Police Think Is a Suspect But Have Not Yet Identified As Such, because it paints the person as a suspect in the public mind, but I see the utility of it. At that, it’s a little more direct than the British euphemism for the same context, helping the police with their inquiries.
Murder will out: Though murder in common speech is an equivalent of killing or homicide, it also has a specific legal meaning, the intentional taking of a life. A homicide can be a murder or a manslaughter. So journalists who observe the niceties do not use the word murder until someone has been convicted of that charge.
Omit needless word: The Sun’s veteran crime reporter, Peter Hermann, wonders why people write about “convicted felons.” No one becomes a felon until being convicted of a felony.