Arrested? Here’s why your name belongs in tomorrow’s blotter

Ryan Maldonado

I am the Devil. Spit. Scum.

Last week, somebody even accused me of having “an unhealthy propensity for gossip.”

I am the city editor. The person with one of the last words in whether we print your name in tomorrow’s blotter. Ask any of your classmates who have stolen something petty or even picked their noses the wrong way lately – I will run your name.

I bet you think I sit back in my fiery Daily throne, pitchfork in hand, looking out to see whose life I will destroy in our next issue. You think our police reporter comes in with news of your little brush-in with the law and I rejoice, wink, smile and clasp my greasy paws together in some ghoulish celebration.

Too many arrested students and friends of arrested students have complained lately that the city desk has no right to print the names of suspects. They say we do it gratuitously, almost out of cruelty. But there’s more to it, I swear. My horns aren’t that sharp.

The following is a lesson in our decision-making, an inside look at my job and your rights.

Consider this make-believe scenario (it’s a generic but common one). I’ll even use me as the sample student.

I’m out hunting for new tennis balls downtown, but the ones I find cost a lot of money (because sports products in Evanston cost a lot of money), and I’d much rather stuff my fat face with a giant Chipotle burrito for the same five bucks. So I slip the balls down my pants and try to walk out when some wise guy calls the Evanston police on me. Next thing I know, the cops are there and their nifty K-9 sniffs out my stolen balls.

Cut to the cops reporter later that day who sifts through the crime bulletin to write the next day’s blotter. Remember, we live in Evanston, so nothing exciting happens on the average day. Then our reporter comes across my arrest, and tomorrow’s headline reads: “Police dog sniffs balls out of city editor’s pants.”

My life is ruined! How did this happen?

The first thing you should know is that we run police blotter items based on their newsworthiness. If somebody tries to hold up an Evanston bank with a banana or tries to steal The Rock, I assure you that your petty theft won’t appear in the paper. But when the worst thing that happened is that someone’s car window was smashed, a student who stole a movie from a local vendor is golden.

Sure, but why run the name?

As journalists, especially ones in training, we want to grab as much as we can get. We want a narrative, intricate details and both sides of the story if both sides are willing to speak.

The average Northwestern student doesn’t know how Illinois laws work. As soon as you’re cuffed, your name becomes public record, as long as you’re not a minor or a suspect in an ongoing murder or rape investigation. Running a name is not only legal, it’s also a part of our job to publish the most accurate information available. That gives our stories integrity.

Another thing you readers should note is how we construct these blotter items. Just because someone is arrested doesn’t mean that they are guilty. Hence, we say “city editor was arrested in connection with stealing balls,” not “city editor was arrested for stealing balls.” The latter would imply guilt and that’s surely not our job. The courts will do that. Oh, and innocent victims don’t get named without proper consent.

Finally, it should be clear that if your crime is a big deal to us and we have access to your name, we’re going to run it, no matter who you are. That includes buddies, roommates, even administrators’ kids. Even me, if I make the wrong decision.

I guess the best way to stay out of the blotter is to stay out of trouble. So it goes.