Why we report on the criminal justice system
The recent arrest of a young Columbus man charged with three felony crimes sparked a reaction uncommon for Stillwater County.
More than 20 people -- most of them teenage girls -- attended the young man’s initial court appearance last week in district court. In the days before, after the News had reported the story on our website and Facebook pages, some of these supporters used Facebook to express their outrage and firm disbelief that this young man had done anything to merit being arrested and charged.
A woman called the News office to ask if it had been necessary to include “all the details” in our article.
This presents a good opportunity to explain the News’ policy on such reporting as well as the rational behind it.
When someone is charged with a felony crime it is newsworthy for several reasons.
1. Felony offenses are serious.
2. Although crimes are only allegations until proven beyond a reasonable doubt, by the time someone is charged, at least two criminal justice entities (and often three) have investigated the allegations and determined there is probable cause to proceed with a case. Those entities are law enforcement, a prosecutor’s office and a judge.
3. It is the public’s right to know what is happening in the criminal justice system for safety reasons, tax money reasons and to have a general idea of what is going on in Stillwater County.
4. Victims. People seldom choose to become victims. It is something that happens to them.
We fully understand the gravity of having your name or that of a loved one in the newspaper associated with an alleged crime. These articles are never approached lightly and great care is taken in deciding what information to use and not use. It is a difficult situation that has even more impact in a smaller rural county such as Stillwater. Very often at least one staff member knows the person or family involved. I sometimes read court documents and my heart sinks seeing familiar names.
But this kind of reporting is important. If it wasn’t, we would not do it. Along with nearly every newspaper in the country.
Back to choosing what to include in these articles. In the most recent case, although it may have seemed to contain a great deal of detail, in fact it did not. Had I included the details of the alleged sexual and aggravated assaults charged in this case, it would have left most readers in tears and sickened. Graphic details are required for court documents but very rarely included in News’ articles. The goal is to summarize the allegations.
That does not mean there will never be disturbing or graphic information in articles. It means that if there are there is a specific reason.