Question: I have been covering court for my weekly newspaper for just over four years. Recently the editor of the competing newspaper was charged with impaired driving and failure/refusing to provide a breath sample and a trial date has been set. There has been some debate in the newsroom about whether there is an obligation to cover this or if doing so is more ‘gotcha’ than it is newsworthy. As a court reporter in a small town I have written about people I know, their family members and even someone connected to my own family (the father of my nieces). Now I am faced with the question of covering a colleague’s trial that could end their job in the community (the publisher btw operates outside the community and the competition does not cover court so they are unaware) Is there a clear cut answer on this: do I write the story?
Rocky Mountain Outlook
Answer by Don Sellar:
If I were the editor, I´d try to handle the story the same as any other impaired driving case. No more, no less because a competing media outlet is involved.
Evidently, there was no accident, injury or death in the case. That fact might help dictate the length of story, or determine where and how it ought to be played.
Had the suspect been an employee of my newspaper, however, my coverage would, if anything, be given bigger and more extensive play. Your own paper must hold itself to even higher standards, if it is to retain respect in the community.
When I was a reporter at The Calgary Herald in the 1960s, I remember a short news story in The Edmonton Journal. Played on an inside page, it was headlined ¨Publisher fined $10 for speeding¨. With no input from the newsroom, the story had been written and filed by Basil Dean, then the Journal´s publisher. I doubt the paper routinely covered minor speeding cases in those days.
Cases involving staff members can serve as helpful reminders of a newspaper´s obligation to handle all court cases carefully and with fairness.
Who knows, the person charged may have a credible and successful defence to the charge. The presumption of innocence is paramount.
Don Sellar was the Toronto Star’s ombud for 11 years until his retirement in 2005.
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