To journalists: Consider the ethics of truth about registered citizens

By Steve Yoder . . .Local reporters, you’re a national treasure. You’ve got one of the tougher jobs going—coming up with story ideas, tracking down sources, writing on unforgiving deadlines, working nights. For all that, you’re paid next-to-nothing. You do it because you love it, and we’re grateful. The country needs journalists in every town committed to telling the whole truth.

With all that pressure, it’s no wonder stories about people on the sex offender registry make a tempting target. Registries are in the public domain. Registrants’ photo, address, place of work, school, and make and model of car are usually there for the taking. It’s easy to write a story that looks investigative without doing much work—with everything in the open, you just ask a good question: “How many registrants are employed as taxi drivers?” “How many live within a mile of a school?” “Is anyone on the registry attending a local college?” and the story writes itself. It’s also easy to cover the complaints of local residents who oppose registrants being allowed any constitutional protections.

Public hysteria seems like good copy. Actually it’s not–accurate, positive stories are more likely to go viral. And I bet journalistic standards and the truth matter to you. So here are a few questions to ask when you’re assigned or are considering a story about someone on a sex offender registry.

Is it ethical journalism to out people for crimes they’ve been punished for?A backlash is brewing against reporters who make private details public simply to shock and embarrass. So reporter Nico Hines nearly lost his job at the Daily Beast after luring Olympic athletes onto sex apps and then outing them. Publishing a story about an executive’s extramarital texting with a gay porn star says more about the reporter than its target, as Gawker’s Jordan Sargent learned. Local paper The Anderson News stopped posting the photos of drunk driving arrestees because, as its editor finally concluded, publishing mug shots “adds a level of punishment, or at least embarrassment, beyond what is imposed by a judge… I really don’t think that the role of a community newspaper is to punish or embarrass anybody. It’s to report the news and provide information.” Likewise, ambushing a man once convicted of child pornography possession who’s attending a local college is little more than bullying, as the reporter who wrote the story concluded recently in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Journalism is supposed to hold accountable those in power. Does your story do that? Or does it encourage harassmentthreats, and violence?

Have I considered data on the actual risk before doing this story? Elevator phobia affects thousands of people. But a new lift being installed in an apartment building isn’t news because the chance of dying in an elevator crash is 1 in 10.5 million. Likewise, it’s not a story when a neighbor says they’re afraid because someone who’s served time for a sex crime lives nearby or opens a business near them.

Recidivism rates for those who’ve committed sex crimes are lower than nearly all other classes of ex-offender (5 to 15 percent, and 3 percent for those who’ve been offense free after 10 years, a figure comparable to the risk in the non-offending population). Upwards of 90 percent of new sex crimes are committed by someone not on a registry.

Local reporter Joshua Vaughn of The Sentinel newspaper in Pennsylvania consulted the statistics and turned his research into an illuminating series on sex offender registration and sexual violence prevention—some of those stories are hereherehere, and here.

If I’m covering a policy proposal, have I asked for evidence that it will work? Too often, proposed solutions don’t have any research to back them up. For example, some states and towns have introduced laws to ban those on sex offender registries from living near schools, parks, playgrounds, and other places children congregate. It sounds like common sense. But it’s not—after mountains of study, the federal government declared in 2015 that those policies do nothing to affect sex crime or sexual re-offense rates. What about banning registrants from participating in Halloween? That’s a rule in search of a problem, researchers have concluded—sex crime rates don’t change on Halloween.

The key questions to ask advocates of new policies are these: What’s the data show about the problem you say you want to solve? What’s the research say about whether your solution will make anyone safer?

Have I avoided loaded language? Neutral language isn’t optional in reporting on sex offenses—it’s essential to fair reporting. There are alternatives to prejudicial terms like “predator,” “sex offender,” and “child molester.” Choices like “offender,” “registrant,” and “ex-offender” meet journalistic standards for impartiality. More on this one here.

Have I included the perspective of a state or national expert? Talking to police and prosecutors, victims’ groups, and citizens is fine. But more important is to find out what people who have studied the issue say. That’s exactly what these local reporters did.

Some sources of respected experts on sexual violence are the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, the Crimes Against Children Research Center, and the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.

And not all advocates are on one side—hundreds of lawyers and activists have been working for years for sex offense policy reform. So get the perspective of a group like the National Association of Rational Sex Offense LawsWomen Against the Registry, or the Alliance for Constitutional Sex Offense Laws.

Good reporting means better governance. An issue as important as sexual violence badly requires your objectivity and independent judgment to move our leaders away from policies that waste money or cause needless pain, and toward those that actually work.

Read Steve’s blog here.

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    • #18850 Reply

      This is an excellent idea and long overdue. We need quality journalism reporting with ethics and a substantiate evidence of background when reporting. Thank you for this article and I hope that it brings the best out in journalism.

    • #18868 Reply
      Donnie G

      In a politically charged country on the very brink of armed revolution and martial law the rights of offenders is going to seem like a secondary (or lower) problem to be addressed. In the world of an idealist it seems “right” that person who has served his time be restored to the statis of a protected citizen once again but this just isn’t realistic. In a political ,corporate or legal arena it is accepted that scapegoats are employed to divert attention from the actual fault. A convenient place to “dump the trash” if you will. In our society sex offenders fit the scapegoat requirement perfectly. We have few resources, we are universally dispised and we are already guilty of something. True offender reform is a noble and “right” action but I believe that no politician or lawmaker is likely to give up his favorite whipping boy, it would be hard to think of a more perfect target group then people with few rights or recourse. (for the record I was convicted during a District Attorney election year, you do the math) As much as I’d like to live a fuller, more rewarding life I can’t see anyway for it to happen. I think the best we can aspire to (and it angers me greatly) is to do just what the establishment needs us to (remain fearful of a misinformed public and comparatively powerless ) , stay out of trouble and always be mindful that things will get a lot worse before we see improvement.

    • #18867 Reply

      A great article on journalistic responsibility. It should be forwarded to EVERY journalist out there, along with the links. Sad to say, but the majority will continue on their crusade of fear mongering and sensationalism all in the name of “the public needs to know.”

    • #18873 Reply
      Chuck K

      Great article. Great idea. Those of us who wish to see real change in SO laws need to realize that we are tilting at windmills as long as politicians get politically rewarded for tougher and tougher stands on registration laws. The only way this can be reversed is to get public opinion shifted, and the only way that will happen is if the press starts publishing more articles with facts about these laws. Once the public realizes what works and what doesn’t and where the real threats to their children are, then the political process can reward those who make sensible laws that save taxpayer money and actually protect people.

    • #18878 Reply
      Sona S. Nast, LCSW, LSOTP

      Excellent article. As a treatment provider for convicted sex offenders, I applaud any effort to shine a light of rational and evidence-based reporting.

    • #18883 Reply

      Even with ABSOLUTE TRUTH AND FACTS on our side, changing public opinion is still going to be an up-hill battle every step of the way. We have to recognize that sex offenders are hated and loathed by the public; especially those sex offenders who have molested young children in the 12 and under age group. These laws are not based on fear, in my opinion, but on a blind, visceral hatred and general absence of intent to forgive. For years the mantra of child advocates has been, “When a child is molested, they’re ruined for life. The abuse is a life sentence to the victim.” This is where the old “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” mentality comes in. Society figures that if the abuser ruined their victims for life, then the offender should also be ruined for life. In the public’s estimation how fair is it for the victim to have to pay for the offender’s abuse for life when the abuser “only has to serve a few years in prison and then go on with his life like nothing ever happened”??

      This is really what’s at the back of these laws. Not fear or misinformation, but blind, visceral hate. We can cite all the facts and true stats in the world, but in the end public opinion won’t be swayed by one iota.

    • #18930 Reply
      Alan R Hyde

      I am in Texas…

      please read the following:


      Art. 62.002. APPLICABILITY OF CHAPTER. (a) This chapter applies only to a reportable conviction or adjudication occurring on or after September 1, 1970.
      (b) Except as provided by Subsection (c), the duties imposed on a person required to register under this chapter on the basis of a reportable conviction or adjudication, and the corresponding duties and powers of other entities in relation to the person required to register on the basis of that conviction or adjudication, are not affected by:
      (1) an appeal of the conviction or adjudication; or
      (2) a pardon of the conviction or adjudication.
      (c) If a conviction or adjudication that is the basis of a duty to register under this chapter is set aside on appeal by a court or if the person required to register under this chapter on the basis of a conviction or adjudication receives a pardon on the basis of subsequent proof of innocence, the duties imposed on the person by this chapter and the corresponding duties and powers of other entities in relation to the person are terminated.

      I have a issue for which the judge had set aside the matter but the state don t see it as that.
      I now must find a way to gain 20,000$ to hire a attorney and sue the state as a SOR. because the state refuse to enforce the court order for which had set aside which the duties imposed on the person by this chapter and the corresponding duties and powers of other entities in relation to the person are terminated.

    • #18946 Reply
      kind of living

      journalism has been a thorn in the side of alleged sex offenders for a good many years , because (1) the journalist don’t ever really do the real foot work to see what both sides of the story is , no , what they do is put what ever spin on it necessary to sell papers , and you can bet it paints a picture of some one in a trench coat with a bag of gummy bears trying to pick children up , (2) the very same journalist have no idea bad how that truly is when it comes to picking a jury saying they read no papers or watched no news ,in most case’s of course that is a lie , prospective jurors read the papers and listen to the news and go to the court house with a twisted idea of punishment based on so called facts that journalist take no responsibility for as a result ending up in more plea deals with the courts , rather than fighting the case and winning ,(3) after the person or persons do their time they have to register as sex offenders even know the deal they made in court said nothing about having to register , you must understand that the person that did there time and parole not only are they on the registry but there family’s friend as well , cars they drive , for life! making it hard to hold jobs down , a secure home often ending up home less , very few journalist really point out how counter productive this is , even vigilantism is carried out on the these people / family , yet the press still cheerleading on this activity , only backing the agenda of what ever political ideology that is being pushed at the moment by some politician that’s only thinking of votes , ,,, whos job is it to report the truth based facts for all to see ?

    • #19004 Reply

      Listening to the President talk about this “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville being favorited one over the other as unequality sounds like the President doesn’t want to put the blame on either side, all that aside for a minute or two.
      Let us all look at these internet sex sting operations. Who is giving the opportunity at first? Who is on an adult chat site at first? Who is pretending to be someone that they are not? Yes, when reality comes to realism we find that whats really their is a government that presses the panic button on the american people all in the name of public safety.
      Public Safety is someone on the street corner that prostitutes themselves and ask for your money in a real time situation not thru an internet situation. So that right there is an inbalance. Than they strive to get you to come down to meet and than dress it up as attempt.
      Law enforcment are slick willy’s. Sure no one wants to admit their faults but believe it or not with these internet encounters it is the fault of the police duping the public thru internet. Sure the general public would love to hear of their next door neighbor get caught up when that neighbor could of just as well been caught up in this same situation. Newspapers don’t report the real truth. They try and glamorize it for one side.
      Police should abandon all this deception. One can call a spade a spade or a spade a shovel, but the main thing is where does love come into all this picture. It doesn’t. It seems one side want’s to be right the other side wants to be right. This thing in Charlottes was about some statue about tearing it down because it was offensive to others. Well it stood their for a long time now someone say’s its time to tear it down. Lets all rally to tear it down.. Where is the reasoning in that. Should we now go around and tear down a naviety scene and yes we all know that they tore down the commandments but if we all come to reason on this sex offender issue one will find that law enforcment are going a bit too far in a lot of these matters.

    • #19139 Reply
      John D

      Excellent article, thank you. If you look at the click rates for stories on the internet about registered citizens they are substantially higher than those of any other crime including murders. People like to read about these articles, which is why journalistic ethics should be used even more than usual. I suspect that is the reason they like to sensationalize these pieces.

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