Answers to complaints sometimes difficult
Two Clovis News Journal readers complained last week about items published in the police blotter. They felt the information provided was too specific.
Our blotter is published three to five times per week, depending on the availability of space and staff. Items typically describe incidents that area law enforcement officers consider criminal, but our blotter reports do not name suspects or victims and we do not cite specific addresses where the events occur.
Last week’s complaints came from readers who were involved in separate incidents we reported. They said the information we provided was enough for some people to identify the crime victims.
One man said he reported a crime from a location where the crime did not occur. He said his purpose was to prevent the alleged criminals from knowing where he’s living now. But the paper reported the vicinity of his current address — that’s where police took the report — and the alleged criminals have been able to use that general information to help them pinpoint his current location.
I told him the information we reported — and a great deal more — is available to any citizen simply by requesting an incident report from police. The man said the people he believes stole from him would never request information from police because they have warrants out for their arrests.
A woman complained about an unrelated police blotter item. She said her teenage daughter is the only teenage girl living in the vicinity we described and therefore is identifiable to everyone with ties to that area.
I understand concerns presented by both readers. I’m not sure what the newspaper can do to prevent similar events from occurring in the future.
First, the newspaper is under no obligation to withhold names of crime victims or criminal suspects. We could print exact locations of criminal activity because all of that information is public record; we choose not to do so.
In fact, some people would argue the newspaper has a moral obligation to report as much information as possible about alleged criminal activity so that citizens might better protect themselves and avoid becoming victims.
We respect both views.
We report a great deal more information about the most serious criminal activities — murder, for example — than we typically report on less serious crimes, such as shoplifting.
We try to provide more information when victims are selected at random — a recent series of armed robberies, for example — than we typically provide in cases where the victim is known to the perpetrator.
Our mission, always, is to provide information that helps readers. Sometimes that means innocent people find themselves in an unwanted public spotlight.
The unwanted spotlight found an 8-year-old Clovis girl last week as well when she rode her bike into traffic and was hit by a car. She suffered bruises and was treated and released from the hospital that same day. Several witnesses feared the accident was far more serious and contacted the newspaper, seeking additional information.
We published a story on the accident the next day, but decided to honor the family’s request and withhold the girl’s name. I’m not sure that was the right decision. Several people who contacted the paper wanted to know the victim’s name, fearing it might be someone they knew. I’m sure those folks eventually learned the information they wanted to know without the newspaper’s help.
And that’s what concerns me. If we don’t tell readers what they want to know, they try to learn that information from other sources. Eventually, a customer will stop seeking services from a particular business if that business fails to provide the service requested.
Newspapers are in the information business. If we don’t provide the information they want, our customers will go elsewhere.
From the Editor’s Desk is a weekly memo to CNJ readers. David Stevens can be reached at 763-6991, extension 310, or by e-mail: [email protected]