Back when I was a reporter here in the late 1990s, we didn’t have an official policy on crime coverage. As a result, we were sometimes questioned — and rightly so — about why we covered one alleged crime and not another.
Before I returned as editor in 2007, a previous editor instituted a policy of covering all felony charges in northern Mille Lacs County and worked out a deal with the Mille Lacs County Attorney to share the felony complaints filed in district court.
Those complaints include a narrative of the events leading up to the charges, including eyewitness testimony from officers involved, after-the-fact testimony gained through interviews, a summary of physical evidence, etc. When we write our stories, we are relying on the version of events described in those criminal complaints.
We usually don’t track down those charged with a crime for their side of the story because it’s a big time investment when the usual answer (as advised by attorneys) is “no comment” or “I didn’t do it.”
However, if someone accused of a crime wants to make his or her case in the paper, we’re happy to print it. We take all calls, our doors are always open, and there’s always another paper next week.
As I’ve dealt with irate readers and people accused of crimes over the last few years, I’ve decided the Messenger’s policy is a good one. We need to cover felony charges because felonies are serious crimes. People have a right to know, a need to know, and a desire to know if their neighbors are accused, and it’s our job to tell them.
At times we’re unable to follow our policy because we don’t receive information from the county attorney, due to glitches in the bureaucratic machinery. Recently we didn’t hear about a felony charge until we were told through a comment on our website. Once we heard, we obtained the complaint and ran the story.
We occasionally cover crimes that are less serious than felonies. Sometimes it’s because we happen to be there to capture the drama in writing or on camera. Sometimes it’s because the crime is the talk of the town, and we need to sort out fact from rumor. More often, it’s because the accused is a public employee. Newspapers (and the general public) have always held elected officials and other public employees to a higher standard.
Judgment calls still must be made about how to cover these stories and where to put them. I’ve scaled back the detail in crime stories over the last couple years, partly because of a lack of space and partly because I’ve heard from readers who are tired of the sordid content on our pages.
The decision is not self-interested. I know some of our readers don’t like all the bad news, but I also know, thanks to hit counts on our website, that crime stories are the most popular stories we run.
I decided a long time ago that it’s wrong to publish mug shots of people accused of crimes, except in rare cases when it’s a public figure, or the crime is especially severe, or there’s a threat to public safety (murder, criminal sexual conduct, wanted fugitives). Mugshots make everyone look guilty, so I prefer not to run them prior to a conviction, even though it would sell more papers if I did.
I do choose to use mugshots of those who are given state prison sentences. I have no problem showing the faces of those who have been convicted of a crime serious enough to warrant a prison term.
Our policy is an attempt to be as fair and consistent as possible in the inherently murky world of the media. If you have suggestions for how we can do a better job, we’re always willing to listen.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.