Why we write crime stories | Editorial

 

Why do we write crime stories? Do we want to sensationalize violence in an effort to sell more papers? We are a small knit community – should we really hear about the harsh realities of life?

These are some of the questions raised in emails and on our websites by our readers. Here are some answers.

We are the community paper of record and it is our responsibility to inform the public of all news – good and bad. We only write crime pieces after someone has been charged with a crime. We do not write crime stories to condemn our community members. If we wanted to take justice into our own hands, we would publish stories as soon as we hear about them through the grapevine.

What we do is wait until a person has been charged or sentenced. Then we read all the documents on public file – from the charging documents to the officer’s report to the sentencing paperwork. If we find something confusing in those documents, we often reach out to the attorneys involved for clarification.

In the case of the recent story about Christopher Stovall in the Sept. 23 edition of the Sounder and Journal and Sept. 29 Islands’ Weekly, we found that the initial charges of child rape were dropped when we began the reporting process. Because of the severity of the initial charge, we dug deep into the story to uncover why he was charged with such a crime.

We gathered more documents, including initial statements given to the undersheriff. We emailed extensively with Stovall’s two lawyers and the prosecuting attorneys in order to understand the truth. We received a statement from Christopher that we included in the story. The victim of the crime, who is now over 18, also emailed us to share her story.

This story took the work of our reporter Anna V. Smith, our publisher Colleen Smith Armstrong and myself, the editor of the Weekly and the Journal, over the span of several weeks. The story was also reviewed by our company’s attorney as well as an impartial outside editor who reviewed the story for bias. We not only reviewed the documents but held editorial meetings to discuss fairness and accuracy, which are the foundation for any story we report.

We are charged with the important and powerful task to report on the news. We prefer stories that build our community, that raise people up and help grow commerce. When difficult crime stories land on my desk, I take them on with a heavy heart, for it is a great responsibility to write words about assault, rape, molestation and other crimes.

Our criminal justice system is not perfect, and often innocent people are sentenced with crimes they did not commit. That is why we commit to extensive legwork with stories like the one I mentioned above.

I started my career as an embedded journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those countries, where violence is a daily occurrence, I asked myself questions like: What is truth and what is fair? There is no handbook to tell journalist the answers, but we have is a code of ethics (www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp), we have colleagues to discuss these questions and most importantly, we have you, our readers, who hold us accountable every week for what is published in the paper. Without you we would not be able to hold ourselves at such high standards. Please continue to help us by asking questions and demanding answers. We hope this column has given you more information.

History

After the Revolutionary War newspapers began to spread rapidly in the new nation, representing the freedom we won to have our own voice. About 10 years later with the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, we were given freedom of the press and America’s newspapers began to grow into the publications we know today. Throughout our nation’s history, papers have gone through many changes and have often been criticized for being biased, sensationalized and lacking truth.

Although there is truth in this, there have been publications that have changed the world for the better. Here is one example of how news coverage has done this.

Remember Rodney King?

In 1991 KTLA played a nine-minute video of police officers beating the African-American motorist. The video turned the story into a iconic moment, not just for one individual’s mistreatment but police abuses nationwide. This news started a movement, focusing on issues such as racism, the criminal justice system and the monitoring of police agencies.

Should the TV station not have played these images because they were violent or because those police officers might have had pregnant wives or children at home that would be disturbed? Should that video have been suppressed because there was more to the story than one video clip – because there is always more to a story? Or do we value the news as a way to balance the power from those in power whether it comes to age, race, class or authority level?