We deal with many issues in our business that can be controversial. What you decide to cover, who, where, why and when are frequently issues. Sometimes covering a particular story is not an issue unless it is election time. Sometime not covering a story is an issue if it is election time, but any other time it is OK. Timing, frequently, is everything.
Covering arrests and crime in general is different and usually is less impacted by the timing of the coverage. The issue with this news coverage is why we do it in the first place and often why we don’t wait to report the results of the trials – like guilty or not guilty.
Covering crime and running lists of arrests can make some people mad – particularly when their names are in the coverage. I've been accused of muck-raking, sleazy journalism and worse. Some see our reporting as some sort of invasion of their privacy – their right to be arrested and no one know about it. I think they don’t want their personal dirty laundry to be aired but one of the problems is that arrests generally don’t happen in a vacuum. They do impact the public.
Sometimes these folks are part of the crime report and sometimes they are simply thinking that they wouldn't want to one day be part of it so best to attack that coverage in advance. And of course there are those who sincerely hold a low opinion of this type of news reporting. And I get that.
We do report arrests and of course everyone who is arrested is not guilty – and we acknowledge that at the beginning of the crime pages. But the fact that the arrest occurred is fact. All our crime reporting is pulled from the arrest reports from the police or sheriff department’s public domain records or interviews with staff from the police or sheriff’s department. I have a standing policy that if someone is arrested and the case is dismissed for whatever reason or goes to trial that we will report the outcome if the arrested person requests it.
Usually when arrest coverage comes up and I explain our policy and the reasoning behind this coverage, most people are more comfortable with it. But before I share what our position is I always start out by acknowledging that the crime news we report is probably the highest read part of the paper. Yes, in part, we report crime news simply because it is what our readers are interested in reading – crime that is happening in their neighborhoods – on their streets – in their cities that could easily directly or indirectly impact them or someone in their family someday. So, yes, one reason we include it is because it is popular and increases our readership.
The second part of the explanation is simple. I believe that by reporting crimes, we discourage or prevent crime. If I have had one person come up to me and say that they decided not to have that last drink because they didn't want to end up on the crime pages of the paper, I have had a dozen. And if that prevented only one drunk-driving accident, in my mind that is enough justification all by itself.
If reading about all the young people being arrested for possession of drugs stops a few kids from not taking seriously this business of illegal drugs, that is a good thing. If our coverage of crimes of opportunity – theft of purses left on front seats or laptops left on dashboards, or open garage doors or cars in the driveway, etc. – helps remind folks in the community to be more careful, then we have helped our community. If our story about some predator approaching kids in an area park or recreation area alerts a mom or dad to the danger or heightens community awareness in general about children’s safety, then we’ve done our job and I will neither apologize for it nor feel bad that we publish it.