Thursday, December 23, 2010

When does a story become a story?

When the Blackfoot School District announced this week that it was putting Blackfoot High School basketball Coach Jonathon Packer on paid leave, it said it was doing so out of “an abundance of caution.”

That phrase also describes the Post Register’s approach to covering this story and ones like it.

Recent allegations of abuse disguised as “hazing”, most recently out of Bingham County but previously from Teton County and Shelley, create some difficult issues for journalists.

For example, the Post Register has a longstanding policy of not printing stories about the possibility of charges being filed in a criminal investigation or a suggestion that someone is considering filing a civil lawsuit. There have been very rare exceptions to this rule, but we nearly always wait until actual charges or lawsuits are filed before publishing a story.

Some other newspapers and news outlets don’t have such strict standards, often printing or broadcasting that charges “are being considered” or “might be filed.” This creates confusion – too many people assume that means that arrests have been made and people have actually been charged with a crime. In fact, one outlet mistakenly reported that additional charges had actually been filed in Blackfoot when they hadn’t.

So, while information about potential charges swirls, the Post Register waits. When someone is formally charged, we do the story. 

This isn’t a back-patting exercise. Journalists are free to operate under whatever standards they set. We’re simply explaining how we do it, and why. 

Beyond creating confusion, printing a story that “so and so says she will file a suit against such and such” opens the door to manipulation by people involved in legal disagreements. A public threat to sue can maneuver public opinion one way or another – we won’t do the story until the threatened lawsuit actually appears in a court file, thus complying with the requirements of the law.

This also illustrates why an open court system is so important. It’s tempting to want to seal any court proceedings that include embarrassing or otherwise dreadful material – like the hazing of high school students that potentially crosses the line to criminal behavior. The Post Register doesn’t print the names of juveniles (unless they eventually are charged as an adult) or victims in such cases. But court files need to stay open so the process can be observed once the legal process begins.

We still don’t know if anyone committed a crime, if those who are supposed to be overseeing sports programs were negligent, or how widespread the problem is. The Post Register and other local media will continue to cover the story as it unfolds, though we might go about it differently. We thought you should know why.

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