Know what your story is really about

QUESTION: I cover a lot of court. This week a case came up where a man pleaded guilty to contravening the national parks act by not having a business licence for his rafting company. I did a quick search of this fellow’s name and it has come up that he was convicted of three counts of sexual exploitation of teenage girls when he was their teacher in 2007 and sentenced to 14 months in jail. Is this relevant for a story about a breach of the National Parks Act? Should it be the lead or at the end of the story that he has an unrelated criminal record. I am leaning toward this is something the community should know but it seems like there is a level of uncomfortableness in the newsroom with the idea? Does that go too far or is his criminal record fair game?

Tanya Foubert
Reporter, Rocky Mountain Outlook

Answer by Edmonton Journal reporter Karen Kleiss

First off, the man’s criminal history is part of the public record, and  you can put it in your story without fear of legal trouble. So this isn’t a legal question, it’s an ethical one, and each reporter will answer it differently. When I encounter a situation like this, I remind myself that the purpose of journalism is to convey as much information as is necessary to help readers fully understand what has happened in their community, so they can shape informed opinions and make informed decisions. So I would ask myself: What is this story really about? What do readers really need to know in order to understand what happened? In this case, the story is about a man who breached the National Parks Act and was sentenced for his actions. Readers need to understand the crime, and the punishment for that crime, so they can decide for themselves whether the laws are tough enough to protect the park system. So the information about the sexual exploitation conviction definitely doesn’t belong in the lead, because that’s not what the story is about. Now, should it go in the story near the end? This is a tougher question. First, I’d remind myself that the community learned about the teacher’s exploitive behaviour when it he was sentenced for that crime. Second, I would consider the fact that he has served his time and paid his debt to society — and he probably lost his job, too. Third, I would ask myself: Does the man’s history of sex assault have any bearing whatsoever on his breach of the National Parks Act? I say it doesn’t, and indeed the judge is unlikely to take the unrelated conviction into account when sentencing the man for this new crime. So I would leave it out of my story. Some reporters would say the man’s criminal history speaks to his character and the public has a right to know about it, and that’s also a valid conclusion. However, I would say that if you do decide to put it in, take care to explain the circumstances of the crime so readers come away with facts, and not just a vague impression that the man is an all-around bad guy.

Karen Kleiss recently completed a three-year tour of duty as the Edmonton Journal’s legal affairs writer