Archive for Thursday, December 14, 2000

A battle of ethics and policy

December 14, 2000

I'm suddenly reminded of a not-so-flattering time in my teen years when a few friends and I got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing something completely wrong.

I won't bore you with the details suffice it to say, I learned my lesson.

As the police officers were calling our parents, one of my friends asked an officer, "Is this going to be in 'Police Beat'?"

You see, contrary to what you might think, I grew up in a small town. We had a weekly paper that everyone turned to each Wednesday morning for the latest news of our oceanside city, located a few miles south of San Francisco.

It was the paper that gave me my first job in journalism. It's where I learned community journalism, which, believe it or not, isn't always warm, fuzzy news.

The standing joke in our town was that you turned to the sports page to see what your friends were doing and then to the "Police Beat" column to see how the rest of your friends were.

The "Police Beat" was a listing of some of the more interesting crimes that occurred in town over the week and I learned later in life when I was inside the paper's newsroom, many folks feared this column.

We would get two to three calls a week from people begging us not to run the details of their Saturday nights-gone-bad inside our paper.

We had policies on what made it into print. A crime was usually spared the scrutiny of the community unless it was felonious or featured some unusual circumstances. Drunk drivers never had to worry unless they caused injury, property damage or resisted arrest.

And this point was etched in stone the names of juveniles never appeared.

Ever since, those simple rules have been my guide.

Unfortunately, times have changed.

There is a drastic difference between vandalizing your rival high school the week of the big game and the recent events, where two teen-age boys allegedly shot up a herd of cattle, but not before one of them allegedly held a rifle not once or twice, but three times to the head of another boy.

Simply put, nothing can ever again be etched in stone. The events of recent years have shown us that cold-blooded, senseless killing is not limited to those old enough to vote.

The events of last week show us that Eudora, Kan., with all of its charm and small-town qualities, is not immune from it.

We struggled with the decision whether to use the names of the boys who are being accused of these crimes.

Would it serve the community to publish these names?

Or was this merely a case of the competitiveness of our business the race to be first to a story?

Would using their names insinuate guilt? After all, isn't our nation founded on the principle that you are innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law?

Do we have an obligation to give children, no matter how heinous the allegations, the benefit of the doubt?

In the end we decided against using the names because as close as this might have come to being a tragedy, it wasn't.

As atrocious as we find it that these children allegedly had access to firearms, as heinous as we believe the accusations to be, we're still dealing with children.

As a publication, we have an obligation to differentiate between the public's right to know and its need to know. We deemed it to be unnecessary. Anybody who finds this philosophy unacceptable can obtain the names at the Douglas County District Court clerk's office.

We had a legal right to publish the names. Newspapers that don't do so out of discretion. We choose not to, but we came within two inches the approximate distance a fully extended index finger travels to pull the trigger of being forced to run the names.

In the end, we didn't think the community gained a whole lot by The Eudora News publishing the names of the boys.

In the end, a new policy has been created one that is far more complex and complicated, which is appropriate considering the times in which we live.

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