Comments from the crime beat
While the crime beat is one of the most intriguing at the newspaper, it's also one of the most difficult and controversial to cover, so I thought I'd try to clear up a few misconceptions (well, at least as many misconceptions as I can address in the space allowed here.)
I took over the crime beat last year when Anna Erickson, who did a great job before me, took the editor's job in Park Rapids. It's far from my first time covering crime news (that was about 15 years ago.) But I've learned a lot over the years, including:
Despite what they say, readers flock to the crime news. It's one of the most read, and generally the most read, part of the paper. Want proof? In last week's paper, we ran a story above the fold about 22 new jobs coming to Wadena, a huge story in its economic impact on the town, we believed. Down the page, we ran a crime story about some inappropriate touching outside a bar in Sebeka. Guess which one, according to our Internet statistics, was read more? The touching story was read about 8-1 more often than the "good news" story.
Much of what we report comes from the court files and the police reports from the incidents. These do have an inherent bias to the prosecution's side, and readers need to know that. The court files and police reports lay out the prosecutor's and the cop's version of events. While they (and we) attempt to report the defendant's version of events, those aren't always included. We make attempts on higher profile cases to get the defendant's comment, but their attorney almost always shuts us down, which we understand is what's best for his/her client. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and that's not said enough.
Though there could always be an exception, we do not publish the names of people when they're arrested. When someone is formally charged in court, we publish the names, but usually only in gross misdemeanors and felonies. "Charged" means a city or county attorney has reviewed the work of the police and levied a formal charge in district court. It still doesn't mean the person is guilty, just that the prosecutor has established enough reason for the crime to be charged and the court process to continue. From there, sometimes people go to a jury trial, appear before a judge or just plea bargain a case. Plea bargaining is the best route for the taxpayers -- it produces a punishment without the great expense of a prosecution. But in any of the three routes, guilt or innocence is determined. If someone is guilty, then they have sentencing. When they're sentenced, that's when you see the information show up on our News of Record page. We print every single sentence right down to speeding tickets for all of Wadena County with one exception: we don't print them if the perpetrator is under 18.
We as a newspaper don't make judgments about the quality of character of anyone we cover. We don't ever determine ourselves whether we think the defendant is guilty or innocent, a bad person or a good person. We're not in the business of judging. We're in the business of telling you what is going on at the courthouse, and you can decide for yourselves what to make of it. There are no good guys and bad guys. We just report what are the facts in the court and police files.
No one lands on the "Wadena County Wanted" if they take care of the charges against them. For instance, if someone writes a bad check today but makes all appearances in court and follows the rules, they'll never appear on that list. It's only when someone has failed to make court appearances that the judge issues a warrant, which is what will cause someone to show up on that list.
People often ask me why we put so much detail -- or just certain embarrassing details -- in court stories. I usually reply, "You are only able to read what I've put in, not what I didn't put in. You usually aren't aware that I have edited many details out."
The truth is, there are often very vulgar or biasing details that I leave out of court stories, some because they are not fit to print, others because they could provide identifying details about the victim. We go very far toward protecting victims, especially
in cases that involve children or criminal sexual conduct cases. While we believe the public has the right to know about dangerous individuals or questionable activity in their neighborhoods, we think that right to information stops when it affects the victim. We try very hard not to create more collateral damage for the victim.
Speaking of gory details, the one huge downside to covering crime news is having to read the devastation in people's lives that takes place every day. Whether it's a rape, a child being hurt, or just family heartache caused by a crime, you have to be a soulless robot for it not to affect you when you read through these court files. Nothing on Earth is worse than reading through a child abuse case. While 99 percent of the details of those cases are left out, I have to read them all in their entirety to get a sense of what should be reported. Any good mood I'm ever in before seeing one of those cases is gone quickly after reading that file.
It's one of the reason I respect cops and social workers so much. I mean, I'm only reading this stuff. They talk to the victims, probably deal with far more gory details than they ever put in the reports I read. It's true human tragedy, and it takes a strong person to punch the time clock each morning and go deal with this stuff.
One more thought: no, there is no way for anyone to beg or bribe their way out of having their name put in the paper in a crime story or on the News of Record page. It would be a huge breach of ethics to do so. Everyone is treated the same, and everyone's name goes in. Period.
People often ask me, "if it were your friend or your family member, would you put their name in the paper?" They ask very incredulously, expecting they've backed me into some ethical corner and they expect me to answer that I wouldn't.
Wrong. I would. I have -- both friends and family members. My friends know that if they need help moving a couch, or need a shoulder to cry on, or just need a fishing partner, I'm always there for them. They also know if they get in trouble with the law, they don't even need to ask. The answer is, "no, I can't help you."
As cold as it sounds, my job and my integrity come first, and I'm not going to throw both of them away to give anyone special treatment. It's never happened. It never will.
Probably makes me a crummy friend, but hopefully a decent crime reporter.