No double standards

Published 10:20 am Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hardly an issue of our newspaper goes by that we don’t report the criminal misdeeds — as either alleged by law enforcement or affirmed by a judge or jury — of someone in Western Tidewater.

Because the defendants are usually among society’s outcasts — the stereotypical South Street crackhead, if you will — we rarely hear a peep of protest. More often, readers thank us for keeping them informed.

But let the defendant come from across the metaphorical tracks, from a higher place in society, and the protests are as predictable as the July heat: “How can you do that to the family?” “Why did it have to be on the front page?” “Couldn’t you have withheld the name?” “You don’t understand; he’s a wonderful person who is under a lot of stress.”

And perhaps the most common: “You’re a small-town newspaper; you need to stick to softball scores and honor rolls.”

The complaints are sincere and well-intentioned, though usually clouded by the emotions of seeing a loved one in trouble.

We heard them a few times during the investigation and prosecution of former Franklin attorney Ed Moyler on estate-fraud charges. More recently, friends and relatives of Courtland artist Martha Gibson have criticized us for reporting on the two very serious felony charges she faces, including one of attempting to kill a Murfreesboro, N.C., police officer by running over him in a van.

A newspaper’s job is to make an unemotional determination of what is newsworthy and to report that news, without bias or exclusion. It’s not that we are unfeeling. Behind the words we publish is a staff of human beings, each with our own flaws and frailties. All of us have experienced personal tragedy; some of us have seen our own friends and family make unflattering headlines.

A few of us knew Martha Gibson. We were stunned and saddened by word of her arrest. Regardless, we can’t allow our personal relationships or empathy to influence whether we report the news. To do so would give rise to double standards that would undermine our credibility with the readers we serve.

The reality is that every criminal has a sad story to tell, many of them true. Take a walk through Western Tidewater Regional Jail and, to a person, the inmates will tell of a tragic circumstance that fueled their legal troubles: abuse by a parent or spouse, a father who abandoned them, the death of a loved one, a bad marriage, mental illness, the loss of a job or other financial hardship.

If empathy for the defendant or their families were the guiding test, we’d never report a word of crime news, because each situation is tragic in its own right. Every criminal defendant has friends and family who are hurt and embarrassed, who don’t relish seeing their loved one’s name in the newspaper in an unflattering light.

Still, crime is news. It arguably is bigger news in a small town than in a big city, because crime happens less frequently in rural areas. Readers are more likely to know the parties involved.

People much smarter than me have over the years decided that the criminal justice system is very much the people’s business. The laws of this state and country long have ensured that the arrest, prosecution and punishment of criminal defendants are matters of public record.

And readers want information about crime in their community. They remind us every time we conduct a survey and ask them what they want to read about.

The age of the Internet has allowed us to quantify that interest. I regularly get a report showing every story on our website and how many people have read it. A major crime story gets two to three times the readership of a story about a government board raising taxes or an upbeat feature story on someone who’s done a good deed.

We’re no less committed to reporting on the latter, because we believe those to be important stories too. We devote much more space to people’s accomplishments than to their failures. Unlike the big-city papers, we care a lot about softball scores and honor rolls.

But when crime happens, we must report on it — regardless of the defendant’s professional prominence, income level, social standing or back story.