All the fuss about the public’s right to know

Edmonton police are being criticized for not releasing the names of murder victims. There is no legal requirement, apparently, either to do it or not do it. It’s probably being done out of respect for the wishes of the bereaved.
But that’s not good enough, says Ryerson University Journalism Professor Lisa Taylor. Homicides are not private matters and the public has a right to know. Taylor points to the fact all 27 of Calgary’s murder victims last year were named. Seventeen of Edmonton’s 42 murder victims were not named.
Exactly why anyone would think it important to make a fuss about this is hard to say. The public’s ‘right to know,’ is certainly something worth considering. But so, surely, is a family’s right to privacy.
Here at The Leader, we tend to lean more toward the latter. Not that we’ve faced the same dilemma, much. There were a couple of shocking murders – both of young women – in or around Slave Lake in 2017, and the RCMP were quick to release their names.
What the Slave Lake RCMP traditionally has not done, as far as we can recall, is release the names of suicide victims. Fair enough. Does the public ‘need’ to know them? Probably not.
We take that further, thinking that the public doesn’t ‘need’ to know who has been charged with a crime. We do think the public has right to know who has been convicted of one, though. The thing is, people aren’t always convicted. They aren’t always guilty. If it turns out they aren’t, they should be able to go back to their lives without their reputations being smeared.
On the other side of this coin is that perpetrators of nasty crimes who richly deserve to be publicly shamed may not be. It is entirely possible for a crime to have been committed, the perpetrator convicted and nobody in the general public ever hears about it. The Leader covers whatever gets resolved in court on Wednesdays; if it happens other days, or in other courtrooms, we usually aren’t even aware of it.
It would be handy if the courts, or maybe the police, issued news releases announcing significant convictions. But it doesn’t happen very often. Sometimes Fish & Wildlife will follow one of its cases to its conclusion (it can take months or even years) and let the world know about the penalties a poacher had to pay. Their idea is broad publicity will have a deterrent effect.
But we started this off talking about revealing or not revealing the names of victims, not perpetrators. Some of the reasoning is probably the same. The Ryerson prof may have a strong enough legal argument. We wonder what she would have to say about publishing the names of suspected murderers.
Perhaps we should ask.

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