Wick Communications

Posts Tagged ‘Courts’

Guilty in court of public opinion

In Accuracy on 5 Jan 2017 at 11:58 am


The story, posted on a television network affiliate website, makes no doubt about the guilt of the perpetrators:

SAN MATEO, Calif. (KGO) — A brothel operating in a residential neighborhood was shut down Monday night. San Mateo police raided the home on West 20th Avenue, right across the street from Serra High school.

Neighbors say they had a funny feeling about the new tenants of a rental home from the beginning. Turned out, they were right.

San Mateo police arrested Jin Zhen for operating a house of ill-fame, also known as a brothel.

It had only been running for three weeks, but in that short period of time, business was booming. …

As for the prostitutes, none were inside at the time of the raid. …

Maybe that is because where were no prostitutes. A month and a half after the raid, the local district attorney has yet to press charges. In fact, district attorney Steve Wagstaffe issued a rather unusual statement about the case five weeks after the arrests, saying the police had work to do and that press could stop calling about it because he would let us know if and when charges were ever filed. A measure of how seriously he took the charges can be found in the paltry $2,500 bail and the fact that he said he would notify defendants by mail if charges were forthcoming. … Read the rest of this entry »


The accused and the guilty

In Crime on 20 Oct 2016 at 3:06 pm
Clyde Champion Barrow

Clyde Champion Barrow

I’m not a big fan of police mugshots. I say that knowing full well that readers can’t get enough of them. There are entire websites filled with nothing but people caught at their absolute lowest moments — bloodshot eyes, hair in need of a comb, frowns that look permanent.

In fact, there are websites that scrape all those mugs, post them and then send the accused a friendly email, noting the accused can have that sad picture removed … for a price. It’s extortion and, amazingly, perfectly legal.

I want to make a plea on behalf of the accused. Please remember that just because the authorities send the local newspaper a mugshot does not mean the guy in the picture is guilty. If you are going to use it and run a man or woman’s name in 40-point type along with the accusation, I think you have an obligation to follow the case through adjudication.

And ask yourself this: What would you tell someone accused of a heinous crime in your newspaper after he is found not guilty? What will you say, after you have posted his name and photo online, where it will remain in some form for the rest of his life?

I take particular caution with photos of those accused of crimes that come with particular stigma. Take, for instance, child molestation. You can argue that parents have a right to know if there is a predator in their midst, and I guess that is so. But, as a parent, am I really going to commit that mug to memory so that when I see the guy three years from now I know to scurry my children in the other direction? (As an aside the Innocence Project of Texas reported a few years ago that it received 100 letters a week from people who said they were wrongly accused of sex crimes.) … Read the rest of this entry »

The good guys win one

In Media law on 4 Sep 2015 at 7:58 am

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There was a fascinating and also sort of terrifying bit of courtroom drama this week in New Iberia, La., and it involved a Wick newspaper. The important thing is that the good guys won in the end.

The story is a bit convoluted, and I hope someone will let me know if I get any of the particulars wrong. But the short version is that an anonymous commenter on the Daily Iberian website wrote to impugn the integrity of a local attorney named David Groner. Here’s the comment:

I read the paper where David Groner is representing Deputy Sanders Butler in the sexual harassment. The only thing you need to know is that Butler helped Groner in his failed bid for State Senator against Fred Mills and Simone Champagne. That’s when the truth came out about Groner having a reputation for engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.

Now, that might strike you as unfair (and it did to me as well, at first). But the commenter linked to a 2008 Louisiana Supreme Court opinion that noted those very allegations. Groner was suspended from practicing law for six months, though that suspension was deferred upon completion of a supervised probation…. Read the rest of this entry »

Handle young offenders with kid gloves

In Crime on 9 Jul 2015 at 3:24 pm
Courtesy Orange County Register

Courtesy Orange County Register

Ontario Argus Observer  Managing Editor Kristi Albertson asked me a tough question last week. (In the future, I sound much smarter if you ask me something easy, Kristi…)

She wanted to know whether she should name a juvenile who had been charged with stealing a car. The little darling is 16 and has a criminal history, apparently.

I told her the answer has more to do with community standards and journalistic ethics than matters of law. States differ on what they allow law enforcement to release. In the end, Kristi found the state of Oregon doesn’t allow release of juvenile names. But what if it had? Just because the local constables tell you a 16-year-old stole a car, doesn’t mean you ought to name the kid.


The reason is that kids are not adults, obviously. They do stupid things. They often grow out of the turmoil in their teenage years. In our society, we give them certain leeway to learn from their mistakes. We often try them for their crimes in separate judicial proceedings. Usually, they don’t suffer the same consequences as adults committing similar crimes.

Printing the name of a juvenile is a type of consequence. Particularly in the Internet age, those allegations stick with offenders, sometimes forever. In most cases, it just doesn’t feel right to me to blast the name of a 16-year-old — not only in the local newspaper but to the world at large — by posting it in a virtual file cabinet that never goes away. I strongly urge you to err on the side of protecting juveniles… Read the rest of this entry »

Toss those old notes

In Media law on 28 May 2015 at 5:06 pm


What do you do with your notes? I mean after you’ve pored over them and written your latest award-winning story. Do you stack all those oddly shaped spiral notebooks on a corner of your desk so that the dust mites have something to cling to? Do you hide them in a drawer somewhere? Throw them away?

I would suggest the latter. While smart people may tell you otherwise, I think the preponderance of experience suggests you are better off systematically getting rid of them. With a caveat.

First, let’s be real: I’ve been a reporter for a long, long time and only very rarely wish I’d had some original notes from longer ago than, say, a month. Now, I’m not Bob Woodward. If I thought I was going to write a book about something I’d been reporting in the newspaper, I would handle notes differently. But I’m not, and you probably aren’t Carl Bernstein either.

I’d like to tell you I keep a clean desk and daily go through my stuff to purge anything not immediately useful. In truth, I let things lie around for about a month then the mess begins to piss me off and I throw stuff away wholesale. It isn’t the most efficient process, but you won’t find anything on my desk from 2005 either. If you’ve already written the story, you probably don’t need those notes.

But there is an even more compelling reason to destroy your notes: They could be subpoenaed one day. You would rather truthfully tell the court that you routinely throw out your notes than try to assert your rights to protect sources and your unpublished materials. … Read the rest of this entry »

Picking up what the DA dropped

In Crime on 26 Mar 2015 at 3:29 pm

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Here’s a scenario with which you are probably familiar. You write a blurb in the police blotter about some guy who allegedly did something wrong. Maybe it’s only a couple sentences. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal. Police say the guy had some drugs. Maybe he intended to sell them.

You print the arrest. End of story.

Only it’s not — not for the guy whose name is in the paper. If you work on the editorial side of the newspaper, I bet you’ve seen these guys straggle in from time to time to proclaim their innocence. The cops got it wrong. They planted evidence. I didn’t do it!

So what do you do?

I bet you try to check it out. At least I think you should. I think we owe the people we drag through the mud the opportunity to come clean. We should follow the charges through to adjudication. (Because we at the Half Moon Bay Review don’t have the resources to routinely cover court machinations that take place out of our circulation area, I long ago made the decision not to print names with most misdemeanor offenses. We do name those involved in felony arrests and we try to follow up on those.)

Last week, one of our usual suspects came to see me. He said the cops were out to get him. Again. I always try to be respectful to these folks, partly because I figure they are having a hard time and it’s the least I can do. I’m also aware that just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t really out to get you.

In this case, the cops really did venture out of bounds. Calls to the district attorney revealed that myriad charges against Osman Yousif were dropped after a superior court judge ruled he was subject to an illegal detention. He calls it “kidnapping” and I’m not sure I can argue the point. Curiously, charges related to a previous arrest – for allegedly having 20 pounds (20 pounds!) of pot packaged for sale – were also dropped when the government’s own expert witness would not testify that the pot was marketable. Is Osman paranoid, or are they really out to get him? … Read the rest of this entry »

How much should you tell?

In Crime on 26 Feb 2015 at 3:16 pm


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: … Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s talk about libel

In journalism on 24 Apr 2014 at 4:34 pm


Avoiding libel is one of the most important responsibilities of an editor and a newspaper generally. It is also something we don’t talk about nearly enough.

First and foremost, we want to treat our readers, sources and advertisers fairly. We also wish to avoid the enormous needless expense that could come from a libel suit.

I’m sure you are with me so far. But could you define libel for me – I mean without consulting Google?

Recently, several of us have had conversations about libel. As a result, I thought it prudent to put together a primer and facilitate a wider dialogue to follow. Let’s make sure that all of our publishers and newsroom managers know the risks and how to avoid libel.

As I often do, I asked R.B. Brenner, deputy director of the Stanford Journalism Program for help. He forwarded my request to David Snyder of the law firm Sheppard Mullin. Snyder was once a reporter himself and now advises newspapers on legal issues including First Amendment concerns. Snyder was kind enough to forward me this discussion of libel from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

I want you to take 10 minutes to read it today. Please pay particular attention to the dozen or so bullet points under the heading “advice for avoiding libel suits.” Here are a couple of what for me are the most important things to remember: … Read the rest of this entry »

‘Yes I can’ isn’t ‘Yes I should’

In Ethics on 25 Mar 2011 at 8:39 am

Editor Tom Locke, of The Flume in Bailey, Colo., ignited a bit of a firestorm last week with a question both simple and complex that he posed to fellow members of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Here’s the scenario: A therapist in town alerted authorities when he learned from a client that she had been involved in a sexual relationship with a female church mentor that began when she was just 15 years old. The young woman apparently considers the relationship consensual and is about to testify – along with about 30 local residents – at the trial of the church mentor.

Here’s the question: Should The Flume name the alleged victim of the sex crime?

Suffice to say, there was a wide range of opinion among editors in the society. Some thought it was a matter of public record. Others thought naming the victim could have a chilling effect on other women who might be considering coming forward in similar crimes. There were a couple of impassioned arguments that naming the alleged criminal unfairly disparaged a woman who might be found not guilty. Locke himself wondered aloud whether it mattered that the sordid affair was between two willing partners and whether the fact that it appears to be between same-sex partners had any bearing… Read the rest of this entry »