Today, ConnectLocal.News published the arrest reports for a single week – 51 individuals who were arrested by law enforcement officials between Jan. 27 and Feb. 2. And I had a knot in my stomach from the time I started preparing the reports until .. well, until nothing, I still have that queasy, “I hate this part,” internal ethics struggle, nest of worms in my stomach.
Which makes this far from the easiest choice for ConnectLocal’s first editorial, but also perhaps the best, and most important choice. And I selected this topic, not so much to explain myself, and my policies, but to open the floor, to hear the community’s viewpoints – whether they agree with mine or not... to initiate the debate… for that, above everything, is the underlying purpose behind the ConnectLocal’s Editorial & Opinion page – to prompt and encourage civil discourse (Please – remember the myriad definitions of civil, and employ them when joining a ConnectLocal debate!)
I am not unique, even among my peers, in questioning the ethical standing of publishing arrest reports and other legal “lists” such as indictments and trial calendars. For at the core, the very base of the American judicial system, is the unassailable presumption that a person is innocent – not “considered” innocent, not ‘presumed’ innocent.. those words, to me, imply doubt, they add a qualifier that is inappropriate.. a person IS innocent until proven guilty in a court of law – not the court of public opinion, not the court of front page press, and especially not the court of website clickbait. Publication of the identity and charges levied against an individual, prior to conviction or guilty plea, carries the potential of negative repercussions upon an innocent individual.
While the underlying right of a new outlet to obtain and publish law enforcement and judicial records, including arrests and trial dockets, has been upheld by the courts, having the legal right to do something does not always make it the ethically right thing to do.
However, while there are valid arguments for not publishing the names of individuals who have not been convicted of crimes for which they are accused, there are also a raft of valid arguments on the side of providing the public with this information. Arguments that go well beyond the “it happened, so it’s news, so I can publish it” copout, and well beyond the fact that arrest reports and obituaries attract 65-70 percent of traffic to a news outlet.
Just as innocent until proven guilty is the core of our judicial system, the core of journalism is our duty as watchdogs. Sure, we tout the local football team when they do well, we publish community events and feel-good stories, we post pictures of snowmen and hunting accomplishments – but that is not our charge. That is the fun part of our occupation.
But our duty, our job – the reason a free press is imperative for a functioning Republic, an informed society and a free country – is we are your watchdogs. We are charged with keeping an eye on public officials, governing bodies, and those in power. We are responsible for being alert for wrongdoings, but we are also responsible for providing citizens with the raw material – the information – to be alert themselves for not only wrongdoing, but for trends, policies, practices and actions that may not be “illegal” or “wrong” ..but either no longer adhere to the original spirt under which those actions were undertaken, or are consistent with an outdated or unacceptable status quo.
Official reports of arrests, and of judicial activities prior to a finding of guilt, are one source of this information that can be used by both a journalist, and by the public at large, to monitor the law enforcement and judicial systems, as well as evaluate societal priories and cultural changes.
Does an arrest report show a trend in a type of crime that needs to be addressed? Does the report show a heavy emphasis on arrests of minor crimes that a community may wish to consider altering those laws? Do trial dockets show a lack of follow-through in cases brought before them, or a lack of preparedness by prosecution? Are the number of cases outweighing the available staff of the prosecutor’s office. Are the number of arrests above, or below, what should be expected of law enforcement? There are a dozens of issues of public concern where information provided by official reports such as arrest records can be a red flag, a warning sign of problems, or a benchmark of improvement.
With valid argument on both sides of the issue – as is the case in a vast majority of debates worthy of the effort to engage in them – there is no pat, easy answer. “Easy” is not part of this equation. While people may think that journalist gleefully engage in activities such as printing arrest reports, I can guarantee you that there is a vast number of us who find no pleasure in this. Just the opposite, in fact.. if you think it is easy to post negative information about my friends (yes, I’ve had to do so), about someone I work out with, someone I see at the grocery store, someone I know is a mother, a son, a grandfather – you are greatly mistaken. There is no feel-good aspect to much of this job.. but my dedication to my job, my unwavering belief in the importance of what ethical, professional, traditional journalism offers to a society, makes the concept of me “feeling good” irrelevant. The only relevant question are those of whether an action serves a valid, legitimate, ethical purpose that outweighs the inherent drawbacks of that action.
SO.. after all that (if any of you were under the misconception that I have learned, over the years, to not be so long-winded, you are sadly mistaken!) I would like to hear the community’s viewpoints on this issue. Toccoa/Stephens County is the community that this paper exists to serve. Now, I don’t promise to always follow popular opinion – majority rules is not always the right answer, and keeping you happy is not my job, keeping you informed IS my job. But, that being said, I will always be grateful to hear input from the community that I serve, and will take that input into consideration in any decisions I make regarding ConnectLocal.News policies and practices.
What does Toccoa/Stephens County think? Print the arrest reports? Don’t print the arrest reports? Print the arrest reports but only if they are major crimes (felonies)? Print the arrest reports but always follow up with resolution of cases? Feel free to respond on social media or here on the website, or to contact me directly through email (email@example.com).
What say you, readers?