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What a Week: One Town Square debate that caught my eye

Jeremy Walsh, editorial director.

Yes, I read Town Square, our company's online commenting forum. It's a blessing and a curse for us -- and depending on when you ask, I might reverse that order.

While I lament the medium on occasion (the sheer time it takes for us to moderate threads that devolve is ... exhausting), there are plenty of instances where productive conversations occur or our news team gets legitimate story leads from the comments. We just have to take some of the online debates with a grain of salt.

I was particularly intrigued by a Town Square thread on our last month, reacting to reporter Jeanita Lyman's story, "Dublin teens allegedly sneak into Cal High classroom to beat student".

As you may recall, the article focused on the shocking incident when, according to police and school district officials, three Dublin teenagers entered the high school in San Ramon during school hours, assaulted a student in class and fled after being confronted by the teacher. The assailants were allegedly later caught by police who were recommending juvenile criminal charges, although they weren't identified publicly because they were under 18 years old.

Some early posts on the story thread questioned if there was a video of the incident circulating on social media, as Jeanita's story referenced, why we didn't post the video with our story. As I do only sparingly, I felt the obligation to respond and elaborate on our ethical decision-making.

There were multiple factors. Basically, the video we saw was poor quality and we didn't have permission from the video creator. But even more importantly, the victim, assailants and bystanders depicted were minors, which raises likely juvenile privacy considerations. (The assailants did appear to be wearing masks.)
The comment thread really picked up after my response, raising some important ethical questions -- although the thread soon became a back-and-forth between several commenters largely repeating points, as they're wont to do.

One angle explored by multiple posters was our company's policy, last updated in 2017, laying out in which situations our reporters do and do not identify adult arrestees by name before formal criminal charges are filed by prosecutors.

Rather than respond right away, I decided to let the Town Square thread play itself out and come back to the conversation in this space. (Then again, a strict reading of our Town Square rules might conclude that portion of the thread to be off-topic, since the assailants in this case were minors, but of course we gave the thread the benefit of the doubt.)

It is vital for journalists to be accountable to readers, sources and ourselves -- have those tough conversations or answer those difficult ethical questions when they arise. Openness, honesty and perspective have to be more than just words in a productive newsroom.

It's true that our company developed a new policy document several years ago, "Guidelines for Reporting Arrests", to align our coverage and inform our editors' deliberations case by case.

As I recall, the guidelines came about because of a deluge of requests from people asking us to remove their names from crime stories. Often with comments like "I was found not guilty" or "the final charges were much less serious that the police alleged" or "I can't get a job because your story on my old arrest still shows up on Google searches". Of course, we do get people who were duly convicted of major felonies who want their articles taken down too.

Ours is a well-written policy, born from a robust internal debate.

I encourage you to read the whole thing here, but essentially we will hold back on an arrestee's name and mugshot before the prosecutors announce charges unless they are a prominent person or local public figure, the case is a major violent crime or it is the result of a lengthy felony investigation. Oh, and there is some room for other allowances "in the judgment of the editor".

To be honest, the guidelines go a little farther than I would like as a traditional cops and courts reporter, but I understand the reasoning, agree with the overall mindset in approach and so appreciate having a clear rule sheet, even if I disagree with aspects of it. And to those who clap back at that, I wonder whether they've ever had to enact a consensus policy at their job.

I like that the policy demands our reporters follow through with prosecutors to learn the actual charges. I like that it puts the focus on identifying arrestees in serious felony cases instead of low-level crimes. I like that it requires us to not simply treat a police press release as gospel, but ask important questions to get more of the full story.

But from my perspective, if our news team is diligent about reporting a noteworthy criminal case from arrest through its resolution in court, then we've done our duty ethically to the victims, defendants and authorities involved. And a key fact at the outset is that said person was arrested based on specified allegations. I can accept the underlying issue is more complex for the individuals involved though.

I do make one important thing clear to my team and the authorities, however: I want the arrestee names.

I think we're entitled to it as public information -- and we'll have the internal ethical debate after securing all relevant details, not the other way around. And I certainly don't want to live in a city, state or country where police can arrest people in secrecy by default.

I also hear the critics who say we have an obligation to readers to report all the public information that we know, but our ethical responsibilities go deeper than that sometimes. A topic for another column.

Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column is a recurring feature in the Pleasanton Weekly.

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