On March 26, 2012, two 16-year-old girls were arrested and charged with the 2011 murder of 32-year-old cab driver Adam Williams. Emily Starnes and Consandra Tyree, who are being held in the Hickory Police Department in North Carolina, were also charged with robbery with firearms and conspiracy to commit robbery. Major outlets – the two I’ve chosen to look at are ABC and CBS – picked up the shocking news, but reported the story in vastly different ways. I think these points illustrate journalistic ethics at work (or not) in a contemporary situation.

ABC chose to write up a 13-paragraph story, complete with a brief video. The girls’ full names appeared both in print and verbally during the video, and pictures of their faces are shown prominently at the top of the article. The article states that others have been arrested in connection with this crime, but the headline only refers to the two teenage girls.

CBS reported the story as a 20-picture slideshow. Each slide was accompanied by a paragraph explaining the basics of the story, as well as who appeared in each photo. The girls were again fully named, and the headline said nothing regarding the other detained suspects. The slideshow contained several pictures of each girl, most of them posed in the “self-shot” style popular with teenagers on Facebook. Some shots show a significant amount of cleavage. At the very end of the slideshow are three pictures of the males arrested for the crime. Only their mug shots appear; there are no “normal” pictures like you’d probably find on Facebook.

This is a multi-faceted case, and one of the issues needing attention here was the choice to name the suspects. ABC mentioned in its article that 16-year-olds in North Carolina are legally tried as adults, and so life imprisonment is a possibility. This could be all the justification the journalist, Christina Ng, needed. However, just because something might be legal doesn’t make it ethical. The two are not necessarily bound. In the American legal system, unlike in many foreign countries, the burden of proof lies with the accuser. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So, at the time of writing these articles, Starnes and Tyree were legally innocent. Providing full names as well as a couple of large photos (or 20 in CBS’ case) might not have been the best route to take to protect these young girls, especially if you follow a Kantian method and don’t prefer to use people as a means to an end. Also, looking at journalism codes, reducing harm is a pillar in several of them. Because they were currently detained in jail, there was arguably little need to identify as they were no longer a danger to the public.

Secondly, we have the issue of the personal Facebook photos. The CBS story contains several of them, but very few of them give us any information. They are simple glamour shots that show the girls in a very vibrant, attractive light – almost as if they couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes levied against them. In contrast, only three pictures of the arrested males were shown, and they were the dreary, unflattering mug shots taken at the police station. There were no photos of the boys playing sports or video games or anything that would paint them in a boyish, positive light. I didn’t conduct a survey here, but I don’t think people would have a hard time pegging the blame on the scruffy looking men instead of the cute teenage girls. It was an odd choice, and one I think could have benefited from a dose of Aristotle.

The Golden Mean could have helped narrow down exactly which pictures were most appropriate. At one extreme, a journalist would probably run the story with no pictures and no names. At the other end we’d have a combination of ABCs’ and CBS’ stories: Text with names, a news video, and a gallery full of mug shots and Facebook photos. Between these two ends lies the course of action I’d find most agreeable, which is to use the mug shots of all the suspects (assuming your editor requires a photo) and nothing more. Those types of photos are very thin content-wise. It’s there to show you a face, not to tell you how to think about said face.

Overall, ABC did a better job of respecting the girls’ privacy, though I personally would have done more. Had they not been apprehended, then I’d agree with posting names and pictures to get the public to assist law enforcement. But because they were safely behind bars, I don’t think posting their info was necessary. ABC’s story only shows the mug shot photos, so it doesn’t try to persuade the viewer with the rhetoric of the Facebook photos, which have no place in a story like this. CBS’ story, which was actually just a couple of nearly-identical paragraphs next to a bunch of self-shot glamour shots, seems a bit exploitative and disrespectful to young girls who are, as of writing this, still legally innocent.

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