A common plea of people made uncomfortable by coverage of criminal allegations is that the newspaper should wait until the matter has been resolved in court.
Otherwise, they say, you’re putting the defendant on trial prematurely and tainting the jury pool.
But there’s truth in the adage, “The wheels of justice move slowly.” Sometimes, cases take years to work their way through the courts. And often, they conclude with plea bargains that involve dismissal of some charges and the lowering of others. A climactic trial before a jury of one’s peers is the exception.
It’s important for the public to know just how well those wheels of justice are rolling. That’s why journalists have the access to information from law enforcement authorities and court documents that make up the bulk of reporting on arrests and prosecutions.
In fact, everyone has access to that information. It just happens to be the newspaper’s job to go and get it.
To cease reporting on arrests and prosecutions would deny readers the right to know what is going on in their community. How safe is their neighborhood? Is someone they know among the accused? Which alleged crimes seem to be the priorities of the authorities? Is there fraud in publicly funded programs?
As for the concern about tainting the jury pool, I believe that most Americans who bother to answer their summons for jury duty take the responsibility seriously. Whether they already know about the case at hand is not the key question — it’s whether they can listen to the evidence presented in court and render a decision based solely on that. Those who have already formed an opinion about a defendant’s innocence or guilt are weeded out during jury selection.
Changes of venue due to pretrial publicity are commonly sought by defense attorneys but rarely granted in California. Judges have often ruled that even residents of small communities are still capable of rendering verdicts in highly publicized cases. To move a trial out of its home county is to lose faith in the inherent fairness of most citizens, while inflicting undue hardship on crime victims and needless expense on taxpayers.
The fact that one Del Norte judge has granted several changes of venue in recent years is something for him to answer to, not the newspaper reporting on the cases.
My concern is not whether we should report on crime as the news becomes available, but whether we do so fairly and accurately. The initial article about an arrest is often based on the allegations of authorities who are giving their version of what happened and why action was taken. Defendants are generally not available for timely comment at that point. But in subsequent reporting, every effort is made to include their views or those of their lawyers — often the response is “no comment.”
If an arrest is reported, at a minimum the ultimate resolution of the case should also be reported. If charges are dropped, that should get similar emphasis in the newspaper to the initial arrest article.
Some cases are complicated, requiring reporters to go through a lot of legal documents or listen to a lot of testimony. And some crime stories are lengthy because that’s what is required to fairly present the available information.
It can be a messy business, but accurate reporting of crime news as soon as it becomes available is far superior to community gossip. You can bet the rumor mills aren’t going to wait for a courtroom verdict before they start churning.