Alan Riquelmy: You be the judge
The judge mused on whether a jury should hear about a felony conviction that was some two decades old.
The case itself was newsworthy, which was why I was there. A man well known in the town for leaving white nationalist literature on cars faced an assault charge. Attorneys in the case battled over what a jury should be allowed to hear.
Was it fair for them to hear about a felony conviction from over 10 years ago? Wouldn’t it prejudice them? Was justice served if they did learn about it?
Newspapers across the country ask themselves similar questions each day when determining what goes in a story, and what doesn’t make the cut.
For example, someone is arrested locally on a newsworthy accusation. The reporter discovers that the person arrested was picked up on a different felony a few years ago. Should that be included? What if prosecutors never pursued the case, and it was dropped? Should that be spelled out, or the previous arrest omitted?
It’s a kind of calculus. People want to know about crime, and who’s accused of it. However, the person arrested deserves a fair shake in the paper. Just because an arrest happened some years ago doesn’t mean it’s automatically part of today’s story, especially if there was no conviction.
Or, alternatively, there’s the case of when a large contingent of readers are unhappy that an arrest was reported on. It happens in any town. Someone of note lands in jail, and people are outraged the paper reported on it.
Once, someone approached me in the courtroom, asking that I refrain from reporting on a certain case because a person involved came from a good family.
If only it were that easy.
We should have waited until the trial before writing about it, I’ve heard, maybe even until there was a conviction. I’m sure OJ would have preferred this method, but such is life.
Each story is assessed on its own merits, but the same news judgments are applied across the board. I doubt every reader will agree with every judgment made. Sometimes a reader sees a story or story placement they don’t like, and considers it an error. Sometimes — hell, plenty of times — we make errors. In a business this subjective, it happens.
But we didn’t leave your kid’s name out of the caption because of spite. And we sure didn’t leave out information in an arrest story because of personal views.
Because it’s not about how we feel. It’s about providing the best product we can, in the best way we can.
If you’ve spoken to a reporter who covers cops and courts, you’ve likely heard this phrase: We write about people during some of the worst moments of their lives. I’ve talked to people as they watched their house burn. I spoke with the father of a murdered college student, asking whether he wanted the death penalty for the man who killed his daughter.
And I’ve written about people who get arrested, had them call me after their release and ask why I wrote about them, or say they don’t want to see their name in the paper ever again.
Regardless of what they’ve done, or what they’re accused of doing, they’re people, just like you me. They deserve the individual assessment we give to each story, and the fair shake that comes with it.
Whether you think that’s right, well, you can be the judge of that.
Alan Riquelmy is the editor of The Union. He can be reached at 530-477-4249 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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