Starting next month, Fairfax County police plan to hand out a card to crime victims and witnesses advising them that they do not have to speak to news reporters, and asking them to call police first if they do intend to give an interview.
Law enforcement experts and news media analysts agreed yesterday that the move appeared to be unprecedented. Victims' rights organizations, meanwhile, applauded the step, which journalists said would discourage potential interview subjects from speaking out.
"I think it's a good advisory," said John Stein, deputy director of the Washington-based National Organization for Victim Assistance. Stein said public figures who deal regularly with reporters are aware they can decline an interview or establish ground rules for one. "Those devices should be available to crime victims, too," he said.
"Could they also hand out a copy of the Constitution or at least the First Amendment?" asked Joel K. Kaplan, chair of the newspaper journalism department at Syracuse University and a former investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Kaplan predicted that crime victims and witnesses would interpret the card "as a direction rather than a suggestion."
Fairfax police spokesman Warren Carmichael said the card idea arose after an incident in October in which a local television reporter interviewed the mother of a 5-year-old boy and briefly showed the boy on the air. The child had been approached by a suspected serial child molester, who was still at large, and police were irate that the station, WJLA-TV, had possibly revealed the boy's identity.
"The situation with the mother and child was so egregious to their well-being," Carmichael said, "that we felt it would be an appropriate thing to provide this information so that, in the future, these individuals could contact us first and we could talk them through the situation."
The two-sided card, to be printed in English and Spanish, states: "News media may wish to interview you regarding this incident. You have the right to refuse interviews. If you choose to give an interview, please call one of the numbers on the reverse side. You will be given advice important to protecting the investigation."
The back of the card provides a space to write the detective or officer's name and phone number. Numbers are also given for the police press office and victim services office.
Carmichael said victims or witnesses sometimes reveal key details of a case that police want to keep under wraps to prevent suspects from arguing later that they learned them from a news report.
"It's unprecedented," said Kyle E. Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a reporter for the Indianapolis Star. "I have not heard of a police agency anywhere in the country doing this." Niederpruem said victims, or their relatives, often want to talk to reporters, and that Fairfax was overreacting after a single incident.
Kaplan noted that police already control much of the information about crime. "If they're the sole source of information, they can control everything. That's not the way our society is meant to operate."
But Rick Rosenthal, a former Chicago TV anchor who now tutors police in media relations, said Fairfax's card will "level the playing field a little bit." Rosenthal, who recently wrote a magazine article blasting WJLA over the October incident, said victims and witnesses "need to understand that it's not only the media who have rights, and the public that has a right to know, but the subjects also have rights."