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Tough decisions for community journalists (02/04/2007)
By Frances Edstrom


     
We had to make a couple of tough decisions in our newsroom this past week. Winona County Attorney Chuck MacLean sent out two faxes announcing that he was pressing charges against two local men in separate cases. Both were accused of criminal sexual conduct, and will appear in court soon. The men hold positions of authority at separate local churches.

The county attorney's faxes to the media were quite graphic, as they should be to justify his charges. The formal complaints themselves were even more graphic.

The tough decisions did not include whether or not the Winona Post should run the news of the county attorney's charges. We believe that we have a responsibility to inform the community of news " the good, the bad and the ugly.

The decisions we grappled with were these: how much of the county attorney's complaint and police reports do we run, and where do we run it.

We are a small community newspaper. We are not owned by an out-of-town syndicate. We live here. This is our home. The people we write about in our news stories are, almost literally, our neighbors.

The questions we have to ask ourselves when considering such stories are many.

First, if we sensationalize the story, who do we help and who do we hurt? How can it help the community and how can it hurt the community? How can it help the alleged victims and how can it hurt them? People do bad things. People commit sins. If the rights and safety of the wider community are threatened by such people, then it is incumbent upon the media to use their power to warn the public. If a person charged with breaking the law does not present an imminent threat, then we believe the media should make note of the charges leveled as a matter of record. In those cases, the story will not run on page one, as page one stories are perceived to hold more importance than those inside the paper.

Second, these cases involve charges, not court or jury decisions. It is written on the bottom of the county attorney's fax in bold letters, underlined, and in all caps, "Charges are not evidence of guilt. All persons are presumed innocent until and unless found guilty in a court of law." If we give too much attention and detail to these charges of illegal sexual contact in our news stories, are we not in essence making the county attorney's case for him before the trial even begins? Are we not responsible to community members to ensure that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty? We can't ignore the fact that at times charges leveled against citizens may not prove valid. Think Duke lacrosse team and District Attorney Mike Nifong. We do not mean to imply that that would happen in Winona County, but the possibility can never be discounted.

Third, when we publicize charges against an individual, we can't help but adversely affect many more innocent people than the individual charged. We must walk a fine line between affirming the right of the alleged victim to live a life free of assault or harrassment and causing undue hurt for innocent bystanders " the alleged perpetrator's family, business associates, parishioners.

When those charged go to court, the media must cover the trial fairly, communicating to the public the cases of the defense as well as the prosecution, and then the decision of the judge or jury and the punishment, if there is one, that is meted out.

Society demands retribution for breaking its laws. The media communicates to the public whether or not our justice system holds lawbreakers responsible for their transgressions.

In a small newspaper in a small community, we must tread our way carefully to that end. 

 

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