"Focusing on the people, not just the policies, as appropriate for the story, can help to underscore the breadth of the issues at hand."
By CSG Justice Center Staff
Criminal record clearance laws are increasingly being implemented across the country, resulting in more and more people becoming eligible to have their criminal record cleared. As a result, there is an increasing conversation among legal practitioners, advocates, and journalists about what considerations should be taken when reporting on record clearance—also known as expungement or sealing, among other terms—and telling the stories of the people it affects.
In response to this growing interest, the Clean Slate Clearinghouse (CSC) hosted a webinar that discussed effective practices that reporters can use when writing stories about people who have criminal records. The webinar, which took place on June 13th, featured a discussion between The Wall Street Journal’s Corinne Ramey, a reporter who covers courts and criminal justice, and Chidi Umez, project manager of the criminal records project at The Council of State Governments Justice Center. During the hour-long conversation, the presenters discussed journalistic practices to keep in mind when writing criminal justice stories, as well as resources journalists can use to inform their reporting. Below are three considerations for journalists covering criminal justice topics, which are informed by the webinar discussion, questions from webinar participants, and recommendations from the CSC advisors.
1. “Humanize” the story: Focus on people
When reporting on stories about the criminal justice system, and those who may have or have had criminal records, speaking with the people behind the issues may help to create a piece that is relatable to a wider audience. Focusing on the people, not just the policies, as appropriate for the story, can help to underscore the breadth of the issues at hand.
2. Consider language in reporting
Words that describe a criminal record or involvement with the criminal justice system as a person’s defining characteristic may overshadow more important aspects of the story. Although limited word counts can often hinder efforts to accommodate this nuance—particularly in a headline—and the editorial standards and style guides used by various publications differ on how to describe a person who has a criminal history, legal practitioners and advocates agree that certain terms should be used conscientiously.
3. Balance public safety concerns and the individual’s privacy
Much of what makes a story compelling comes from the reader having enough information to grasp the full picture of the situation at hand. But at times, when telling the stories of people who have criminal records, it may be challenging to balance transparency for the sake of public safety with individual privacy.
For more information about reporting on people who have criminal records and criminal record clearance, see Considerations for Journalists Writing about People Who Have Criminal Histories.
Photo credit Joanne Harris and Daniel Bubnich/Shutterstock.com
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The series features conversations between Rashawn Davis—a policy analyst at The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center—and people who are involved in the criminal record clearance field, including elected officials, lawyers, social workers, and people who have or have had a juvenile or criminal record (or individuals who are all four, or more).