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News reporting is a balancing act
by Nathan Orme
Nov 27, 2010 | 662 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Journalists strive to provide fair and balanced news.

But when you report the news every day, the grind can get in the way of this journalistic canon. Just ask John Doe.

At the end of June, I received a press release from the Nevada Highway Patrol about an arrest in Sparks. To receive such a release is commonplace; I receive four or five a day from various law enforcement agencies. This one was about a man arrested for allegedly speeding with illegal drugs in his car. As is our custom, we wrote a few paragraphs based on the information provided by NHP and ran it in print and online with the alleged offender’s picture.

With a news staff of just five people — only two of whom are full-time reporters, while myself and the other two have other ancillary duties — we usually are unable to follow up on such stories. Our newspaper follows more high-profile crimes, but we’d need somebody reporting on crime all day and night to follow every such arrest. This means our readers typically never learn the outcome of such charges in the pages of the Sparks Tribune.

Fast forward to a few months later. I received a call in August from the subject of this arrest, the aforementioned Mr. Doe. He began grilling me about how long this story about his arrest was going to remain online. He said he must be the only person on the planet with his name because the story always comes up in Internet searches for “John Doe.”

I told him the story would always be on our website, just like all news stories we publish. Only on rare occasions do we take a story down completely. He also insisted the information in the story was incorrect; that is, he was arrested with a lesser amount of drugs than was reported.

I explained to him our process and apologized for the situation, but stood firm that I would not take down the story just because it upset him. The fact is, he was arrested and that did not change. Ultimately, were we able to tell the entire story of the arrest of John Doe? No. Admittedly, our paper only carried part of his story, which inherently is unfair and unbalanced. With no conclusion, a reader might assume Doe went to jail or at least he is forever tagged a criminal because charges were brought against him.

To date, I still do not know exactly what the outcome of Doe’s arrest was. That is the case with probably 99 percent of the arrests we report. I told him if he provided me with copies of the official court proceedings I would update his story, which now is buried on the Sparks Tribune’s website and only can be found by searching his name. I would do the same with any crime reporting. Sadly, that is all I have the ability to do. I know that in today’s world, employers and friends search for people’s names on the Internet looking for potentially damaging information. Arrest reports can be particularly harmful if, say, a person is looking for a job and a prospective employer sees it.

Even if I report the full story of a person’s arrest and full acquittal, I can’t control the opinions people form whether from the full story or just part of it. I feel badly for Doe and will do what I can to clarify his story, but that’s all I can do. Maybe next time he should be more careful in the choices he makes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to check today’s crime reports.

Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at norme@dailysparkstribune.com.
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