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Reporting and Criminal Records: Three Tips for Journalists

Oct 2 2018

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.

  • Consider the impact of the story on a person’s life. Recognize that the information presented in a story can follow a person for many years; these articles are often not affected by expungement orders. Communities of color, who are most impacted by their contact with the criminal justice system, are especially vulnerable to the consequences that follow from stories highlighting their criminal histories.
  • Be open with the interviewee about all the information you will include in the story to reduce the probability of surprises or inaccurate storytelling.

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.

  • Avoid terms such as “felon,” “offender,” “convict,” or “inmate.” These terms may not only contribute to the social stigmas that affect people who have criminal records, but may also be factually inaccurate based on the person’s circumstance. While a large number of people have criminal records due to incarceration or a felony conviction, many others have criminal records based on other factors, such as an arrest that did not lead to a conviction.
  • Instead, focus on people-centric language. Consider phrasing such as “person who has a criminal record,” “person in the criminal justice system,” “person who is incarcerated,” “person who is in prison/jail custody,” or “person convicted of a crime/felony/misdemeanor.”

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.

  • Consider public safety when choosing to include a person’s criminal record information. Weigh the public’s “need to know,” including any safety issues that may arise in the community based on withholding information about the crimes a person has committed, with the effects the story would have on the person if their criminal history were to be included. This may help to ensure the information does not create unnecessary damage in a person’s life.
  • Include a person’s record clearance history in stories where a person has gone through the process of clearing their record, if they have given their permission. This is important particularly in circumstances where the criminal history information may still be available to the public, despite efforts to limit such access through the formal clearance process.

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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