Judgment call

I’m in the process of becoming the new crime reporter at The Free Press. It’s taking some time to get into full swing because the person taking over my old beat is a former/current copy editor and we’ve been waiting for someone to take over her spot.

So in the meantime, I’ve been sort of doing both health and crime, putting a smidgen more emphasis on the crime end of the deal.

I’m learning. Health reporting is pretty straightforward – you decide what if you’re reporting is newsworthy or is not, then react accordingly. But crime entails a lot more judgment. Every crime story, just about, is newsworthy … that is, everyone wants to hear about everything. However, you’ve got to take a few other things into account, such as who’s going to be hurt by the news you report and if hurting them serves a larger purpose. If so, print it.

Friday, I found in the arrest reports that the sheriff’s office arrested a woman for hosting an underage drinking party on New Year’s. At least a dozen youngsters attended, since that’s the number of aiding and abiding charges she got in addition to the nine contributing to the delinquency of a minor charges. Her arrest is newsworthy, obviously, and needs to be reported since parents should know of this woman’s indiscretion.

But I also listed the names of five 16 to 18-year old partiers who were issued underage drinking tickets, one being the woman’s daughter. My editor cut it.

I was a little ill about this when I saw it in the paper. While the woman serving committed a crime, equally guilty were the party-goers. I’m assuming kids younger than 16 were also charged, but because of their ages, I didn’t see the arrest reports. The law stating they were too young to be identified in print was the only reason I didn’t include their names, too.

Later in the day I was thinking about it, though, and decided my editor had made the right choice. He’s got a lot more experience than I do and it showed in this instance. Yes, the kids were caught drinking underage, but many other people get nailed for charges far worse … possession of drugs, in particular.

And I would never waste my time writing about a guy who got hit with a misdemeanor possession of marijuana – even though, in my mind, it’s much more severe of an infraction against humanity than someone old enough to fight in a war but not old enough to drink getting caught breaking the law.

I got a couple e-mails from people applauding me for running the story about the woman. A couple said it was good to read about crimes other than drug dealers or violent crimes involving, for the most part, black people.

My point: it was good crime reporting on my part to write a little diddy about the woman supplying kids with alcohol, but it was poor work to hastily decide to print the names of the kids. Luckily, the editor caught this and nipped it in the bud before it looked bad for the paper.

Ideally, though, every evil-doer older than 16 would have his or her name printed in a story in our paper. If we were able to do this, then printing underage drinkers on the front page wouldn’t seem so bad.

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