There are stories that we choose to do, and stories that we have to do as part of our responsibility to the community. The “have to” stories are often controversial, sensitive or potentially damaging to reputations. In those cases, we take extra care about how we handle the reporting and writing.
Such a story came to our attention last week, by way of an article in another newspaper in the county about the arrest of a Methow Valley woman on a charge of first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor. Because the adult woman was accused of misconduct with a local student — while acting as a chaperone on a school activity — the elements of a “have to” story were clearly there. The community has an inherent interest in and right to know about such incidents, especially when vulnerable children are involved.
I don’t care about being “scooped” by another paper if it means we have some time to consider about how will approach the same story. Using the statement of the arresting officer, which was redacted to protect the names of minors who were involved in or familiar with the incident, the other newspaper instead used the initials of those victims and witnesses (provided in the redacted statement) in the article it published.
I won’t criticize another publication for its choices — every paper has its own policies and procedures for handling stories in which minors are involved, and its own reasoning for those policies. Each of us has to answer to our readership for those decisions. I’ve had to answer many times for choices I made about coverage, here and at other places I have worked.
I will say that we would not have, and will not, use those initials in our coverage of the incident, the charges or subsequent actions by school district officials. In such a small community, where rumors were already flying and it’s not that hard to figure out what the initials stand for, publishing the initials was tantamount to identifying all those minors — most of whom were witnesses. It’s our policy not to identify minors in crime coverage unless they are charged as adults. And that was the policy at every other newspaper I’ve worked for. Additionally, effectively identifying the minors meant that their families were also identified by extension.
Of course it is necessary to identify the adult who is charged, for the public record and so the community is fully aware of the criminal process. By identifying the adult, others in that person’s family may then be easily identified by association. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of even the most circumspect reporting. Keep in mind that in such cases, it’s the adults charged with a crime who are making decisions that may hurt others close to them; assign the responsibility for that where it belongs.
In this case, the arresting officer’s detailed and extensive statement contains more information than most readers would want to know or would find remotely palatable. We used the statement in our reporting of the story, but left out most of the detail. It’s a matter of public record, so if anyone really wants to know, they can make the effort. I don’t recommend it.
We spent a lot of time in the past week talking about how to cover the story and present it to the community in a way that is both informative and responsible. At this point, a lot of people are asking forward-looking questions about how the school district will respond. We’re asking the same questions.
I’m sure some people in the community would rather we publish nothing about the incident. That’s not an option for any newspaper that’s doing its job. I’ll wager that more people would be upset if we ran nothing. They would then be speculating about whether we were knuckling under to someone or simply taking an unprofessional, easy detour around the story and hoping it wouldn’t be noticed. All that said, these are not stories we enjoy covering or sit around waiting to happen.
Once they do happen, such stories tend to hang around for a while. This one will too. Our future coverage will be focused on following the criminal case, and on the school district’s actions. We’ll we report as much as we can and should, but no more than we need to, all along the way.