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Journalists must walk fine line on some stories

February 24, 2008|By LINDA DUFFIELD

In the newspaper business, we tend to think that if we draw criticism from people on all sides of a given issue, chances are good that we are doing our job properly.

It's a rare occasion when, after we print something unflattering about somebody, we learn that person and his or her friends are happy with us.

We hear we were too hard on the subject of the story, exaggerated the situation or should not have printed anything in the first place.

At the same time, and based on the exact same story, it's not unusual for other people to complain that we were too easy on the subject of the story, put the person in too good a light or covered for him or her.

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We got both types of calls after we published a story about a search warrant being executed at the Halfway home of Del. Robert McKee, followed a day later with a story reporting that authorities said they were searching for child pornography and that McKee would resign from both his delegate post and from his job at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washington County.

Sometimes, trying to tell a story that our readers have a right to know can be a fine balancing act. That is especially true when not all of the facts are available, as they were not in this case.

It is an even finer balancing act when an investigation is not complete and when no charges have been filed.

You see, writing and editing stories for a newspaper requires more than an ability to string words together. Reporters and editors also must understand what legally can be reported, lest they find themselves running afoul of the libel laws.

At least as important, they must understand what is fair to report. Here at The Herald-Mail, we take the fairness standard as seriously as we do the legal criteria.

All of this is tossed into the mix with the public's right to know.

If we report that a search warrant has been executed at a public official's home, even if we do not know what police were seeking in the search, we do have an important bit of information. We know that the police agency that obtained the search warrant had sufficient probable cause to get a judge to sign it.

Probable cause can be defined as reasonable grounds for belief in the existence of facts that would be the basis for issuing a search warrant.

Don't misunderstand. Sufficient probable cause does not imply guilt. It suggests only that there is reason to take an investigation to the next step, to probe deeper into allegations.

By the same token, if we report about the career of a public official who is or has been the subject of an investigation, we are not taking that person's side, going easy on him or her or paying tribute.

We are attempting to give the reader a three-dimensional picture of the person, not a one-sided view.

It is for that same reason that our standard practice is to try to contact people who face, or might in the future face, some sort of legal entanglement.

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