Criminal charges, follow-up deserve equal coverage

By Jim Pumarlo

An individual charges two police officers with assault. The story was carried prominently on Page One in the local newspaper.

It prompted the question: Will the follow-up story, especially if the officers are acquitted, receive similar prominence?

The comment goes to the heart of fairness and credibility of the press. The point commands attention in all newsrooms, especially those that are aggressive in coverage of cops and courts.

Newspapers face a special difficulty and sensitivity in reporting crime, especially in high-profile cases. The issue is central in the debate over free press/fair trial.

Criminal complaints, by law, are public records. Most newsrooms deem it appropriate to publish some of the details that substantiate the charges leveled against a person. The challenge lies in the fact that complaints often contain no rebuttal from the accused. The other side of the circumstances may not surface until the trial or negotiations between attorneys, which could be months after the incident.

The official rebuttal, of course, will become part of the court filings. But nothing prevents reporters from taking the initiative. If defense attorneys decline comment, point that out. It’s not the role of newspapers to try cases in the press, but they should try their best to present all the facts.

In that regard, newspapers should monitor high-profile criminal cases. Take the time to chronicle key developments just as reporters keep tabs on an important project that progresses through various public hearings before reaching a full city council vote.

Factual errors in reporting are readily identified and easily corrected. A misspelling of a name or a wrong title. A misquote. A wrong statistic. A misidentified person. Most newspapers are conscientious in publishing corrections, reporting them promptly in the next edition.

Matters of fairness, however, are not so easily resolved. Yet they can be equally damaging to a newspaper’s credibility. The issue of free press/fair trial warrants regular discussion in newsrooms.

No. 1—pay attention to story placement, especially when it is emotion-filled such as a high-profile crime. If the initial story is on Page One, the resolution of the case should appear there, too.

No. 2—it’s important to pursue all sides of a story. That’s especially true when charges fly freely. In addition, place the response of the “charged” individual high in the story. That’s particularly important if the story starts on the front page. Few readers will give proper attention to the response if it is reported on the jump page or is tacked on the end of a story.

Police blotters and the related stories help readers keep abreast of public safety. In the end, however, balanced coverage will only be as strong as the relationships that editors and reporters have developed with law enforcement. That takes work on an everyday basis.

The press and law enforcement too often are pitted as adversaries. That doesn’t have to be the norm. Newsrooms should continue their aggressive pursuit of news. At the same time, editors and reporters should be diligent in developing relationships with newsmakers who can be uncooperative in sharing “all the news.”

All news sources—and particularly those charged with public safety-—must be prepared to share the bad as well as the good news, the sensitive as well as the feel-good stories. In fact, it’s in their best interest to initiate the coverage. Such a proactive stance can reap long-term dividends in building community trust for the newspaper and law enforcement alike.

© Jim Pumarlo 2011

Jim Pumarlo regularly writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.

 

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