Why we report on court cases | Editorial

Why do we write court stories? Are we being sensational? We are a close-knit community – should we really be reading about people’s private lives? How does the Sounder choose which law and justice stories to write about? These are some of the questions raised in emails and on our websites by our readers.

As your local newspaper, it is our responsibility to inform the public of all news – good and bad. We only write such pieces after someone has been charged with a crime or if a civil case has been filed. Monitoring and writing about the judicial system is one of the watchdog functions of the media, and it is a newspaper editor’s responsibility to decide which stories rise to the level of news. It does not take a reporter or editor long to discover that some stories will cause pain, anger or criticism. A reporter or editor must learn to not allow anger or criticism to cloud his/her news judgment.

A newspaper is protected by the First Amendment because the founding fathers believed a greater good to all was served with a free press. The First Amendment comes with a responsibility on the part of journalist to weigh the facts of a story and make a sound news judgment.

The difference between a civil and criminal case is the penalty and the burden of proof. A criminal case may include the risk of the defendant being sentenced to jail and fines. Civil cases may involve money or damages, interpretation of laws or contract disputes. In a criminal case, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty. The burden of proof in a civil case involving damages usually calls for preponderance of the evidence – often referred to as 50 percent plus 1.

Some of the most important cases ever litigated in this country were civil actions. Roe v. Wade was a class action lawsuit the U.S. Supreme Court heard in 1973. The 1954 Brown v. Board of education was a class action suit filed by the NAACP to stop school segregation. While criminal cases are often dramatic, civil cases are equally important to a community.

Our court stories are based on public documents. If we find something confusing in those documents, we often reach out to the attorneys and law enforcement involved for clarification.

We are charged with the important and powerful task to report on the news. We prefer stories that build our community. But our criminal justice system is not perfect, and often innocent people are sentenced for crimes they did not commit.

Without you, we would not be able to hold ourselves to such high standards. Continue to help us by asking questions. We hope this column has given you more information. If you have further questions about the ethics of the paper, email me at editor@islandssounder.com.