The ethics behind crime reporting | Editorial

The ethics behind crime reporting | Editorial

Unequivocally, the most difficult part of our job as journalists is writing about child molestation, sexual assault and domestic violence.

We approach writing about these crimes with the goal of accuracy, integrity and sensitivity. Some of the steps we take to protect victims include omitting their name, age, residence and relationship to the perpetrator. What we do not omit is the name of the alleged criminal.

One of our duties as the paper of record is to inform the public about those accused of a crime, and that includes providing a timeline, context and narrative of the alleged incidents. We aim to neither gloss over the severity of what occurred nor sensationalize with too many details. Part of bringing awareness to sexual assault and domestic violence is not minimizing or concealing the predatory and manipulative elements that accompany it.

We painstakingly read through court documents to choose what information should be presented to the public and spend hours discussing our approach. We also ensure that our coverage follows national guidelines as outlined here: https://www.nsvrc.org/sexual-violence-reporting-tools and https://www.inspq.qc.ca/en/sexual-assault/media/sexual-assault-and-media.

We take crime reporting extremely seriously. We always start our coverage with a warning that the details are graphic and may be disturbing to some readers.

When this happens in a small community, it can be very challenging to process, but it’s critical to recognize that child rape, abuse and manipulation can and does occur everywhere and crosses all social and economic barriers.

Why do we write court stories? 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 that have been 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 a journalist to weigh the facts of a story and make a sound news judgment.

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.

There was a story in last week’s edition about an Orcas man accused of raping a child. It’s an explicit, emotionally triggering topic. One of the reasons we cover cases like this is to raise awareness of this kind of heinous criminal activity that occurs every day as well as offer a chance for possible victims to contact authorities.

We are charged with the important and powerful task to report on the news. We prefer stories that build our community, yet sometimes our reporting covers a subject that must be shared as a public safety measure. We are very cognizant of how our coverage impacts all of those involved, but the alternative is not reporting on these crimes – and that is a disservice to us all.

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 insight into the Sounder’s role in reporting on sensitive issues. If you have further questions about the ethics of the paper, email me at editor@islandssounder.com.

If you or someone you know is being sexually abused, there is help available.

Locally, SAFE San Juans has 24/7 phone lines available to call on San Juan at 360-378-2345; Orcas at 360-376-1234; or Lopez at 360-468-4567. For more information, visit https://safesj.org/.

Nationally, you can call the RAINN hotline, which is open 24/7 at 1-800-656-4673. For more information, visit https://www.rainn.org/.

To make a police report, call the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office at 360-378-4151.

The Sheriff’s Office anonymous tip line is 360-370-7629.