Why we report on crime | Editorial

(Why do we write crime stories? This is a question we are consistently asked, and as crime stories continue to land on our desks our readers will continue to grapple with understanding why they are subjected to such cruel stories in ink as they sip their morning coffee. We have run similar versions of this editorial, but feel it’s important to continue to reach out to you, our readers, in the hopes of better communicating our role in this community.)

Why do we write crime stories? Are we sensationalizing violence in an effort to sell more papers? We are a tight-knit community – should we really be reading about people’s private lives? Sexual assault does not happen here, so why is the paper reporting on it? Why do we not reveal the names of the victims? What about the accused, don’t they deserve compassion and understanding? These are some of the questions raised in emails and on our websites by our readers. Here are some answers.

We are the community paper of record and it is our responsibility to inform the public of all news, good and bad. We only write such pieces after someone has been charged with a crime. We do not write crime stories to condemn our community members.

If we wanted to take justice into our own hands we would publish stories as soon as we hear about them through the grapevine. We only write an article if a person has been charged, convicted or sentenced. Then we read all the documents on public file — from the charging documents to the officer’s report to the sentencing paperwork. If we find something confusing in those documents, we often reach out to the attorneys and law enforcement involved for clarification.

We are charged with the important and powerful task of reporting on the news. We prefer stories that build our community, that raise people up and help grow commerce. When difficult crime stories land on my desk, I take them on with a heavy heart, for it is a great responsibility to write words about assault, rape and other crimes.

Our criminal justice system is not perfect, and often innocent people are sentenced for crimes they did not commit. That is why we only report on stories after the sheriff’s office has thoroughly investigated the crime and the prosecutors’ office has decided there is enough evidence to charge the persons. We make it clear in the stories that persons are charged with alleged crimes and are not necessarily guilty. We cover the trial and try to present a balanced representation of the story and the parties involved in the incidents.

I started my career as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those countries, where violence is a daily occurrence, I asked myself questions like “what is truth?” and “what is fair?” Sometimes those questions are hard to answer — that’s why journalists have meetings and a code of ethics (www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp); we have colleagues to discuss these questions and, most importantly, we have you, our readers, who hold us accountable every week for what is published in the paper. Without that, we could not hold ourselves to such high standards. Continue to help us by asking questions and demanding answers. Also, if you are accused of a crime you did not commit, we are happy to talk to you and any legal counsel. We hope this column has given you more information. If you have more questions about the ethics of the paper, email me at editor@sanjuanjournal.com.