In one Wick newspaper community, a man was arrested on felony charges of child molestation. The charges were themselves graphic, mentioning very specific sex acts. Authorities indicated the allegations involved family members.
Here in Half Moon Bay, a 19-yer-old otherwise known as a good kid was accused of raging through a local neighborhood, naked, smeared with feces and attacking a former pro athlete, while under the effects of hallucinogens.
And these aren’t particularly isolated incidents. Hardly a week goes by without a touchy story passing an editor’s desk. Sometimes they involve children or mere allegations. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge the veracity of the charges themselves. Complicating matters, most of us live in relatively small towns where these stories can lead to unfair online commentary and innuendo that can follow families for years.
So what do you do with these salacious tales? How do you balance the public’s right to know with questions of fairness to those involved? Do you err on the side of publishing the whole truth or are you likely to protect neighbors and the sensitivities of readers?
Let’s start by acknowledging that these are very difficult decisions. There may be no right answer and there probably isn’t a stock bit of advice that covers unique situations. That said, I’d like to offer some things to consider: …
Does it involve children? I usually tread very lightly in cases involving minors. I don’t want to inadvertently identify the juvenile victim when I say, for instance, that his father was arrested for domestic violence. Consider language that is intentionally vague when it comes to minor victims. You might not want to say the victim is a family member or a child.
Did it happen in public? A classic case might be a suicide. At the Half Moon Bay Review, we rarely report on suicides – unless they occur in public. People will want to about the police cars and crime scene tape in the middle of a business shopping center, for instance. (The fact that our drug case mentioned above occurred in broad daylight and many people saw it factored into what I decided to print.)
Is it overly prurient? In some instances, I don’t think you are failing in your mission if you simply describe the charges as “child molestation” or the like without going into grave detail. Consider your readers as well. Remember that your community newspaper and news site are open and available for everyone in the household to read.
How are you going to play the story? It might seem quaint in the digital age, but where you place a story in the newspaper still matters. It’s one thing to run the molestation story with other police stories on Page 3A. It’s another to run it above the fold and out front.
Have you sought advice? If you have a story on your desk that you know is likely to give you heartburn after it’s published, I strongly suggest you talk it over with other thoughtful people. Ask your publisher what she thinks. Discuss it among the news staff. Call me. I am more than happy to talk about it.
As I say, these cases are all different. I wish I could give more definitive guidance. Don’t shrink away from reporting the news, but don’t rush into it either.