New guidelines to shape Des Moines Register's coverage of crime and public safety: Goal is fairness, consistency (2024)

Since George Floyd’s murder under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis a year and a half ago, the public has rightly focused more attention on issues of fairness and equity in policing, prosecution and the criminal justice system as a whole.

In recent months, newsroom staff at the Des Moines Register have examined our coverage of crime and other public safety issues with the same critical lens: Is our approach fair and consistent, and does it help families and communities better understand the prevalence of crime and how to protect themselves? Or does it perpetuate stereotypes and magnify injustices in the criminal justice system?

As a result of that examination, we’ve developed new coverage guidelines that don’t ignore or downplay significant crimes such as murders or persistent safety threats such as domestic violence, but place greater emphasis on enterprise reporting. We pledge to pursue coverage that is grounded in data, explores the impact of crime on communities and holds government officials accountable.

We’re changing our approach with the humble acknowledgement that some of our past practices have not been fair toindividuals and communities, particularly communities of color already damaged by crime and inequitable policing. We realize we must invest time and effort to rebuild trust that our coverage as a whole will be accurate, fair and better reflect the full richness of community life.

Our examination of our crime coverage found that many longstanding news industry approaches don’t meet the fairness bar. The Register in recent years dropped publication of “police blotters,” in essence reporting every arrest in a community. Even with the larger newsroom staffing of yesteryear, we didn’t pretend to follow up on each case to see whether charges were downgraded or dropped, which wasn’t fair. Likewise, we dropped the online gallery of mug shots of people booked into the Polk County Jail.

Another factor that has guided our thinking is the ubiquity and ease of internet searches, which cansurface a misdemeanor arrest for years to come and affect someone’s ability to get a job or housing or otherwise limit opportunities in life. Thus, with lower-level crimes, we’re shifting away from covering individual arrests and may instead write about how crimes such as vandalism, theft or public intoxication are affecting the quality of life in a neighborhood.

We’ll be guided by these questions when deciding whether to report on a crime:

  • Will the reporting help the public?
  • Has the public’s trust been betrayed?
  • Does it reveal a trend?
  • Will we follow an arrest to its conclusion?

Here’s how the guidelines are shaping specific aspects of our coverage:

  • Naming suspects: We’ll name suspects in serious crimes such as homicide and those charged with hate crimes. When we name a suspect, we will commit to following a case through to its conclusion. In some instances, we may cover an incident of public interest, such as vandalism of a prominent building, but not name someone arrested in connection with the incident. That's not a high-level crime, and it doesn'twarrantinvestment ofstaff time to follow the case to its conclusion. Or, we’ll report on a massive sweep that leads to scores of drug arrests by delving into rising rates of opioid use, but won’t list the names of those arrested.
  • Using mug shots: We’ll rarely do so, and only for the highest-level crimes or when charges involve public officials. Research has consistently shown arrest rate disparities that are rooted in racial and ethnic bias. Use of mug shots reinforces the public’smisperceptions about crime rates.
  • Photographs of defendants: We’ll seek to avoid showing defendants in handcuffs or wearing prison jumpsuits, which can imply guilt.

It’s worth underscoring that these are guidelines, not one-size-fits-all rules. Decisions on crime coverage will be made case by case, weighing the specific factors involved. With public officials, as an example, we hold them to a higher standard: We’ll write about even low-level arrests.

These guidelines will continue to evolve. We will assess and reassess. We will stumble, but we’ll learn from that.

And we count on you to help hold us accountable. We welcome your criticisms and suggestions. Please share your thoughts with communities editor Zach Thompson,, who led development of the guidelines; News Director Rachel Stassen-Berger,; or me.

Carol Hunter is the Register’s executive editor. She wants to hear your questions, story ideas or concerns at515-284-8545,, or on Twitter@carolhunter.

New guidelines to shape Des Moines Register's coverage of crime and public safety: Goal is fairness, consistency (2024)
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