Herald Journal Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, April 22, 2002


Why we printed the story

At the risk of fanning the flames of a hot issue, here is an explanation of our front page story last week about criminal sexual misconduct charges.

We received several complaints from people who were unhappy with the story. A common theme was that the story was printed too early and was too detailed.

Some said we should have waited until the defendant was exonerated or convicted.

Unfortunately, that's not how the process works.

According to court records, the initial complaint was made last fall. Charges were filed in early February.

The filing of charges is when much information becomes officially public.

Remember, too, that the police officers and prosecutors determined the evidence was substantial enough to file the charges. It is unlikely they would take that action unless they were certain the accusations had some merit.

Our staff became aware of the situation in recent weeks, as well as many rumors, some which went way beyond the actual truth of the situation.

First, we made sure to get the court documents to sort out the facts of the case.

One definition of news is "whatever people are talking about." We had no doubt that people were talking about this.

One responsibility of the newspaper is to report the news ­ and that means even when it isn't pleasant to read. And believe us, even when it isn't pleasant to write, either.

In this case, we felt the obligation to respond to something that was a serious topic in the community. We also had an opportunity to set the record straight with facts from court documents, instead of the vicious rumor mill.

Since there was a court hearing Tuesday, some callers thought we should have waited at least one more week before running the story.

Could we have waited? Yes.

But we wonder if it would have been any less painful a week later.

Could we have ignored the issue entirely? Yes.

But how much would you trust us as a supplier of information if we handle only the fluff and run away from the tough stories?

It's especially painful for everyone when the accused is a well-liked, respected member of the community.

Suppose, instead, that the defendant was someone who just moved to town a few months ago and is virtually unknown. The talk about town would be much different.

Would not people then be clamoring to know right away that someone suspected of such wrongdoing is living amongst them?

Another facet of the news businesses is the factor of notoriety.

On one hand, it's important to treat everyone equally. Yet at the same time, some people get more attention ­ not because they're held to a higher standard, but simply because of their status.

Here's an example:

Kirby Puckett's divorce proceedings are all over Twin Cities media, not because of the situation itself but, frankly, because of who he is.

If Puckett were a hot dog vendor at the Metrodome instead of a Hall of Fame outfielder, the media wouldn't pay attention.

People are interested in Puckett because they know him in a sense, so parts of his life become news. The public isn't concerned with George the hot dog guy.

There also was one paragraph of our story which drew criticism as being "too graphic."

Here, we felt the explanation was necessary because that's how the difference between degrees of charges is defined.

Without going into further explicit detail here, let us just say that without that description, the story could easily have been taken to imply something even worse.

There were many more graphic details in the court records that we didn't even consider putting in the paper.

Of course, we'd rather write the "happy" stories, but part of our role as a newspaper is to tell the truth ­ including the fatal accidents, crimes, corruption, etc., that are a part of life.

Stories like this one are just as distasteful for us to write as they are for you to read.

But in the long run, we hope you are better served with accurate information, even when it hurts.

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