Editor’s notes: A change to how the Tahoe Tribune reports on crime
January 2, 2017
At first it seemed like spam — something you get a fair amount of when your email address is published in print and easily accessible online.
The email was ignored. However, several more Tribune staff members forwarded the same message to me over the course of the following day. I read it.
It was from a man who had made the paper for the wrong reason — the crime blotter — around nine years ago. Now, nine years removed, he was asking if we could help him out. The crime report is toward the top of the search results when you type his name into Google.
The charges had been dropped completely, according to the man.
The request raised an issue that we here at the Tribune were already discussing, and it further illustrated the need for the following policy.
We will no longer use the names of people in our crime reporting unless the crime is deemed serious in nature and we intend to follow them through the judicial process. This policy is necessary as we are improving and increasing our coverage of crime and the courts.
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Most of us are familiar with the phrase that is a cornerstone of our criminal justice system: innocent until proven guilty. But as is the case with many things in life, we don't always operate in a manner that adheres to that fundamental assertion.
The court of public opinion can be cruel. Here's a couple of the Facebook comments on some of our recent crime-related stories:
"Take him out and shoot him."
Of course, this policy is not in response to Facebook comments, but they highlight how we equate an arrest with guilt.
The real relevance in this is based on where we stand today. Unlike decades ago, most of us can run a simple background check on somebody within seconds of reaching into our pockets. What was once a newspaper archive that a person would have to go and dig for is now accessible with a couple clicks of the mouse or taps of the finger.
As the man who emailed us pointed out, that is not ideal when trying to get a job and put past indiscretions in the rearview mirror.
At the same time, the Trib and nearly every other media organization that has its roots in a traditional newspaper does not have the resources that we once had. I'm unsure if we ever could, but I know for certain that today we cannot send somebody to sit in court day after day and learn if this person was convicted or if this person plead guilty or if this person was acquitted.
And so we now have an incomplete digital record, which is not only counter to our mission as journalists but unfair and potentially life ruining to those whose name appears in initial reports with no follow-up reporting.
There is no doubt this change will be well received negatively by some. I know that because my previous boss implemented this same policy during my tenure there. Almost immediately I had to field complaints from readers.
"We want to know who these people are," was the common statement.
Well, you can. Everyone can access the same records we can, and do so fairly easily — another reality of the digital age.
And to reiterate: This is not intended to protect "criminals" (something that is determined by the courts, not the arresting officer or deputy) and this is not to say we will never name a person accused of committing a crime.
There are plenty of memories from this profession that continue to stick with me, but one of the most powerful originated in my last job. The parents of a baby who was beaten to death had just been arrested after fleeing the state.
I went out to the low-rent apartment complex to talk with neighbors. Much of what was shared was the sort of thing you'd expect: shock. While talking with a couple of neighbors, a woman interjected — she had walked over with a clear purpose — and told me to leave (her actual request carried far too many expletives to print).
Tears were streaming down her face, and I quickly learned that she was the one who discovered baby Sarah Ogden and called 911.
I walked away that day thinking some of the same thoughts our Facebook commenters voiced in unrelated cases on the Tribune page.
To be clear, we will publish the names of people accused of the same crimes that Phyllis Wyatt and Matthew Ogden (the parents) were charged with. And we will follow them through the courts.
Barring a tragic rash of heinous allegations, these instances will likely be rare based on my brief observation of those booked into our jails. You may see reports from some of our sister publications in the region that do contain names of people arrested or charged with a crime. We will publish those stories with the understanding that our fellow journalists will follow those named through the courts.
You will see more reporting on crime in the Tribune, but you won't always see a name. However, you know my name and I welcome your feedback.
Editor Ryan Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com or 530-542-8006.