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
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.