When are relationships relevant?
The adult son of an executive of your newspaper faces criminal charges. Do you report the family connection in your story?
By Richard Greer
Richard Greer is a reporter for The State, Columbia, SC.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 7 (October 1989), p. 2.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
It is a routine story – three teenagers and two adults are arrested on burglary and stolen goods charges.
The goods: $23,000 in computer equipment. The victim: Their high school.
What would your newspaper do? Probably run it, with all its twists. The youths used a stolen key to enter the school and one later tells the newspaper that the burglary started out as fun, but the sight of the computers made grand larceny “just too easy.”
Among the suspects are the son of your newspaper’s general manager, the son of an elementary school principal in the same district as the burglarized school and the son of a state government division manager.
Now, what would your newspaper do? When are parents of criminal suspects newsworthy?
The State, a 150,000-circulation daily in Columbia, SC, ran the story. But the 16-paragraph description that I wrote became a six-paragraph brief devoid of family ties.
The identities of the parents were confirmed early in the day. The story was deemed “sensitive” and discussions began. The deputy metro editor, Leesa Marsh, wanted the link between the newspaper’s general manager, Sid Crim, and his son included despite the fact the son was 20 years old and did not live with his father.
“We make judgment calls almost every day about whether somebody is a public figure, and we’ve occasionally identified business executives as such,” Marsh said. “When it comes to one of our own executives, we should be beyond reproach in our decision-making.”
I believed, as did Marsh, that the link between the principal and her son should be included in the story, too. It is somewhat unusual when a principal’s 17-year-old son is accused of grand larceny against his school district. (In South Carolina, an adult is anyone 17 years old or older.)
Incident reports from the four break-ins and warrants were reviewed. The suspects were telephoned, and to our surprise, they described how they simply walked into the building and hauled away boxes of computers.
By 7 p.m., the story was complete. Metro desk editors edited the story and forwarded it to the copy desk.
The original lead read: “Deputies said they solved the case of a $23,000 theft from Spring Valley High School with the arrests of five people, including the sons of a school principal, a newspaper executive and a state government department head.”
What appeared the next morning was a brief story stating that the thefts occurred and that five people had been arrested. The suspects were named, but their relationships were not. Nor were their comments about the crimes included.
Managing Editor Robert M. Hitt III made the decision to delete any references to parents and the suspects’ ties to the community.
“The simple guiding principal in my mind is not to brand the son with the sins of the father or vice-versa, unless there is an overriding news interest,” Hitt said. “There was no overriding news interest other than to hold up a principal, a state official and our general manager to ridicule for something that is not their fault. I find no fairness in that.” He said he had no discussion with the newspaper’s general manager before make his decision.
Naming the parents would be acceptable, Hitt said, if the parents were highly placed in the community and the children were living at home, which the general manager’s son was not.
Hitt also noted that the youth who had the stolen key to the school was not the principal’s son – an angle, which had it been present, would have made more of a case for including parental ties.
I do not believe that the story was altered because of any pressure or connection with a newspaper executive. Yet I disagree with the decision because of the possible appearance of undue influence or special treatment. As the deputy metro editor put it, the newspaper must be “beyond reproach.”
The State does not have any specific guidelines on using the names of parents of criminal suspects. But had the suspects been the products of impoverished, broken or violent homes, I believe that information would be included. If their mothers and fathers had been senators, police or judges, I believe that would be part of the story.
What many readers in Columbia did not learn was that youths from comfortable middle-class backgrounds were accused of theft. They did not learn that these youths had ironic ties to the community.
Had our readers known what we did, many would have been suspicious about the handling of the story. And, in a city the size of Columbia, many readers undoubtedly did know what we knew.