Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why we don't comment on crime stories

Crime stories can be the most controversial and some say most intriguing of all the stories we publish.

Readers will often wonder why we don't take a stand on some of the cases on our opinion pages and even more importantly, why we don't generally allow online comments or letters to the editor on pending criminal cases.

The main reason: We're trying to balance the people's right to know and the people's right to free speech with the fair trial rights of the accused.

The question has been raised again by many readers given the high profile nature of Minnesota State University football coach Todd Hoffner's case involving charges of child pornography.

Our competitors in Minneapolis at the Star Tribune have ventured into the waters of commentary on the case. Columnist Gail Rosenblum wrote an column on the case the same Sunday Star Tribune Editor Nancy Barnes explained the newspaper's reporting of the case.

A few weeks later, the Star Tribune took the unusual step of publishing on its opinion pages an editorial essentially holding the Blue Earth County Attorney's Office feet to the fire to justify their handling of charges. The editorial challenged the county attorneys office to provide more definitive information that justify the continuation of the charges.

Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson responded by deferring comment, saying the county attorneys office was not going to try the case in the newspaper.

Certainly, the case has people talking. Some question the validity of the charges. We're withholding judgment mainly because we'd like to see the justice system run its course. We'd like to understand the case and the law more fully.

It's always dangerous venturing an opinion on the case without knowledge of all the facts. We don't have access to interviews that may have been conducted. We haven't even been able to see the tapes in question.

Laws prevent public disclosure of much evidence before it is submitted at trial. There's always more to the story when you see the entire case file. Unfortunately, that usually isn't public available until the case goes to trial or is settled.

We certainly don't agree with everything the Blue Earth County attorneys office does. We've even challenged it in at least two or three formal legal battles. But we've generally waited for criminal trials to play out, unless we feel there is some egregious violation of a public records law.

We've also rejected letters to the editor on the case and generally most online comments for the same reasons we defer.

And while there is sometimes not much public sympathy for those accused of crime, our laws require a fair trial. There's no law the media has to be abide by that, but we feel compelled by our ethics and sense of fairness.

There will be plenty of time for commentary, criticism and discussion once justice has taken its course.

1 comment:

  1. The principle of freedom of speech should nearly always trump competing arguments against it. Your argument is well articulated and even though every impulse in me fights against any curtailment of freedom of speech I find your article persuasive. Thank you for thinking critically and thoroughly about what you decide to publish.