AP creates new guidance on criminal justice reporting

By Kallie Cox

The way journalists report on criminal justice and law enforcement has evolved over the past 10 years. In 2014 when Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, we saw the beginning of this reform, and in 2020 following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw even greater change. 

This year — which marks the 10th anniversary of Brown’s death and the Ferguson protests —  the Associated Press added a new chapter on criminal justice reporting in the 57th edition of the AP Stylebook.

The new edition was released on May 29, four days after the fourth anniversary of Floyd’s death. 

Photo by Chad Davis via Flickr

The changes to the 2024-2026 Stylebook have been hailed by the journalism community as a positive step forward. 

Kelly McBride, writing for Poynter, predicted that a decade from now, “the American newsrooms still standing will have completely reformed how they cover public safety, replacing cheap stories about shootings and stabbings with data-rich narratives that educate communities and hold cops accountable.” 

The new chapter addresses fairness in reporting, how to treat initial police reports, interviewing victims and family members, mugshots, language, crime data and coverage of marginalized communities. 

With this updated guidance, the AP encourages reporters to take steps to ensure fairness even before writing or reporting on a story.

“When considering whether to write about an arrest or criminal charges, ask yourself: Will I follow this case until the end? If not, you may not know if the charges are later dropped or if the suspect was acquitted,” according to the Stylebook. “If it is a minor crime and you are unlikely to follow up with coverage about the outcome of the case, consider not naming the suspect in the story or not writing about the case at all.”

Additionally, when reporting on crime reporters have to ensure they are making every effort to obtain a comment or statement from the suspect, or their advocates and family members. The AP adds that in breaking news situations when it is not possible to make reasonable efforts to reach a suspect, defense attorney, or suspect’s family member, a story can be published without their name.

The AP warns reporters to be wary of initial statements and news releases from law enforcement. 

“Accounts by police, especially in the hours just after a crime, are very incomplete and can be inaccurate, whether about specific details or about motivations behind the crime,” the AP writes. “Press for details and substantiation: How do they know? If key details aren’t known or can’t be confirmed, say so in the story.”

This is something that reporters have become acutely aware of in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Initially, Minneapolis Police released a statement to the media that conveniently omitted the fact that police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for approximately 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Instead, the report notes Floyd seemed to be suffering from medical distress during his arrest.

Poynter analyzed the initial statement nearly a year after Floyd’s death and the protests that followed here.

The Stylebook contains updated guidance on the language journalists use to cover criminal justice and notably calls on reporters to use person-first language and forbids the use of felon, convict, or ex-con as nouns. It also advises reporters to avoid the terms “juvenile” and “minor” when reporting about crime as they can be dehumanizing and instead encourages the use of “child” or “teen.”

The guide specifically highlights coverage of the transgender community telling reporters to use the pronouns and name that align with the person’s gender identity rather than what may be included in an official police report. Historically, police have been known to misgender trans individuals who may or may not have had their name changed legally.

Following the announcement of the new chapter, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Wesley Lowery — who has extensively written about race, police accountability, criminal justice, and who was on the ground in Ferguson following the killing of Michael Brown for the Washington Post — hailed the changes as “a win worth celebrating,” in a post to X (formerly Twitter).

He added that this codifies changes to daily journalism that many journalists, including himself, spent years advocating for inside of newsrooms. He said the caveats to this are that the Stylebook changes do more to help future reporting than what is happening at present, the issues currently facing the journalism industry are more about practice than principle, and he adds that the style guide could have gone much further. 

McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute, praised the new chapter as “a foothold for newsrooms looking to chart a new course.”

McBride was optimistic in her analysis of the changes and said  journalism as a profession, is in the early stages “of a shift in our ethical standards.”

“The ability to embrace ethical improvements is not unlike the ability to evolve the business model. I can see the front-runners who are already ahead of the curve. I can see the bulk of the industry that will eventually catch up. And I can tell who the laggards are, who will hold back in defiance,” she writes. “In 10 years, I’m betting there will be a correlation between the speed at which newsrooms adopt a more journalistically sound approach to covering public safety and the stability of their bottom line.”

Kelly McBride, Poynter

AP’s new recommendations stops short of banning the use of mugshots. Instead, it encourages journalists to think critically before using mugshots in stories and tells newsrooms not to use the photos as a lead image on stories, galleries, or video thumbnails until after a conviction. 

Other style guides and media organizations, including McClatchy and The Marshall Project, have moved away from publishing mugshots and banned their use in most circumstances because of the lasting harm these images can cause and how they disproportionately impact people of color.

GJR reported in 2021 about how more news organization had stopped publishing mugshots in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

Although the AP doesn’t go as far as other media outlets with their new guidance, they do link to other more comprehensive guides and resources for news outlets. 

These included: 

Additionally, more comprehensive information on covering the transgender community and trans victims of violence can be found here

Kallie Cox is a freelance journalist who previously worked for the Riverfront Times. They can be reached at Kecoxmedia@gmail.com 

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