Wick Communications

New crimes for old heroes

In Editing on January 11, 2013 at 9:33 am

Martin-Luther-King-Jr-Swimming-Pool-586x286

Recently, in Half Moon Bay, we learned that a terrifically talented young man had gone astray in a particularly terrible way. What he did was news, but was it right to bring up his past heroics as well?

The story in brief is this: Josh Tatro was a high school water polo coach when he was arrested and charged with having sex with two underage girls. Both girls were apparently players for the team coached by the 26-year-old man. Tatro lives in our area and was a star swimmer and water polo player in his own right in his high school days.

Here’s the headline and lead of our story, as it first appeared online:

Local swimming star takes plea deal for sex crimes

Joshua Tatro, a former Half Moon Bay High School aquatics star, agreed to a plea deal on Friday morning to charges of sexual relations with two underage girls. By agreeing not to contest his charges, Tatro will face up to 44 months of prison and must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Well, what do you think?

On balance, I thought we overplayed his connection to the local high school (which is not where the crimes occurred or where he coached) and his past sports stardom. But I think it’s a tough call. …

We massaged the story just a bit for the print edition.

El Granada resident accepts plea after sex offense

A Coastsider has pleaded no contest to charges of sexual relations with two underage girls. By agreeing not to contest his charges, 26-year-old Joshua Tatro will face up to 44 months of prison and must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.

In that version, his past stardom is pushed down to the fourth graph. My reasoning was that his own prowess in the pool isn’t particularly relevant and may unduly drag Half Moon Bay High School into the mud. I do think it’s somewhat relevant; he wouldn’t have been hired as a coach if not for his expertise. And he was one of only two high school athletes in the county ever to win a prestigious “Spirit of the School” award from the governing body of California high school sports.

I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. I tend to think of a dial rather than a toggle switch controlling such matters. If we were talking about Michael Phelps, then of course, his route to celebrity is relevant. You couldn’t write about Lindsay Lohan without noting that she is an actor. I just don’t think that is true for Josh Tatro.

Here are some of the criteria I run through in my head:

  • Is the past relevant? Tatro was a swimming star in high school and used that past to get a job where he abused his authority.
  • How long ago was his claim to fame? Suppose a local guy is convicted of burglary. If he was a high school gridiron star five years ago, you may want to mention that. If he starred 25 years ago, well, that feels somehow less relevant to me.
  • Does it unfairly paint innocents in a negative light? I don’t think this story reflects poorly on the local high school, but others surely don’t appreciate the association. Be particularly careful with local businesses. For example, I probably wouldn’t write, “The manager of Smith Ford was arrested for DUI…”

Clay

 

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  1. But what if the manager of Smith Ford was driving a Ford at the time of his DUI? I jest.

    Good insight into how to treat criminal backgrounds, Clay.

  2. We had one recently. A kid (18!) working as a substitute teacher at a middle school busted for sexually abusing children in Idaho. We had a bit of an outcry when the headline called him a teacher. Teachers, I was reminded, don’t like being lumped in with subs. But he was also apparently more well known and well though-of than your average sex offender.

    We didn’t get anything wrong, per se, but I found myself agreeing slightly with our critics. His connection to the school made it more noteworthy than your average sex abuse case — and his arrest actually prompted a policy change at the district, which will no longer hire kids so young as subs — and deserved to be pointed out. But “teacher” on first reference without the modifier “substitute” might have been a bit too strong.

    As for a criminal’s past — I routinely run a break-down of a suspect’s criminal history. I think it helps round out his story. Is this a guy who did one bad thing in his life or a junky going to jail for his 12th time on his 18th burglary?

  3. When a former publisher of the Nogales International was charged with assault some years back, the Nogales International included his affiliation with the newspaper in the story it published.
    Your argument can be pushed too far. Should we withhold criminal’s last names to protect his or her family’s reputation?
    Doesn’t this guy’s prominence or “stardom” make the story all the more relevant to the reader? It’s a darker side of community journalism, but it is what it is and he is who is (was). I would not have “massaged” this. We publish newspapers not newsletters.
    We had an incident in which a member of the county board of supervisors declined during a public meeting his turn at chairmanship, citing his responsibilities with the Rotary Club. Should we have not mentioned the name of the club and massaged the story we published by subbing out Rotary with “a local service organization?” I don’t think so, despite the fact that we have received comments and phone calls from Rotarians, concerned not so much about dragging the club’s name through the mud, but about their fellow Rotarian’s reputation. Too bad, so sad, I say.

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