When I was 21 years old, I walked from my downtown Cincinnati, Ohio office to a public parking lot on a bright, summer afternoon. As I began to sit in the driver’s seat, a man forced his way into my car, put his hand over my mouth and told me, if I followed his instructions, I wouldn’t be hurt. With one leg already outside the passenger door, I threw my keys into the parking lot. He loosened his grip. I kicked off my heels and fled.
In my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, walking to your car on a sunny afternoon can be dangerous. With almost 280,000 more residents than San Juan County, crime in Cincinnati, like most large cities, can be an everyday part of life. In the islands, it is rare. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that as of late December, the city saw 405 shootings in 2018, with 57 of them being fatal. In San Juan County, 2018 brought no shootings or robberies.
Accepting the position as a reporter for The Journal of the San Juan Islands and relocating some 2,000 miles away introduced me to a picturesque Pacific Northwest community. Island life brought new opportunities, including learning to sail, watching marine life glide through the water and covering the police and courts for the first time.
Cutting my teeth on crime stories in the safest place I’ve ever lived on my own was the advantage I needed to learn. Though there are not as many crimes in the San Juans as a large city, they still exist. First, I had to understand the timeline of the justice system – from police reports, probable cause statements and filed charges to arraignments, trials and sentencing. Then I had to recite the facts as the Society of Professional Journalists states by “minimiz[ing] harm.” The organization, dedicated to promoting high journalistic standards, provides a code of ethics for reporters to stay on track during the high-paced job. One guideline states to “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justice to publish or broadcast.” Police reports, which are public documents, often have detailed, personal information unnecessary to illustrate that a crime has been committed. Another standard is to “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.” It’s natural to want to write the most interesting story possible, but the potential effects of the report on the lives of those involved should be a top priority.
As I resign from the newspaper, I will continue to appreciate what I consider to be the most valuable trait of the San Juan Islands: safety. In my next job, whether that brings me back to Cincinnati, another big city or a different small town, I’ll always remember the islands, and not just for their coveted beauty. It was on San Juan where I learned the ropes of hard news reporting, but, more importantly, had the privilege to be safe where I lived.