Saturday, January 22, 2011

This should be embarrassing

When a story has gotten this far along the assembly line, there's not much chance a lone copy editor is going to derail it just by pointing out that it's amateurish, irrelevant, ineptly executed and clueless under almost any known approach to journalism ethics. But it would be nice to know that someone had tried.

To sum it up for out-of-towners: There's been an arrest (so far not accompanied by any charges) in a series of rapes in northeast Detroit. That's an important development, and although it's the sort of important development that tends to be handed to news outlets on a silver platter, it's distinctly real news that affects real people. We can even give the police chief credit for summing things up: "What I don’t want lost in all of this is there are seven victims whose lives will never be the same."

Good. I don't want that lost either. But I don't see why it has to entail the Junior G-Man turn we get in print:

Sometimes, late at night, Roscoe P. Coltrane’s lights outside his home on Lansdowne would come on, triggered by motion.

He’d look out and, on occasion, would see his neighbor’s car moving.

“I’ve seen the car move late at night or the car would be coming in late at night,” Coltrane said, adding that he didn’t know who was driving.

That neighbor was arrested Wednesday as a suspect in a string of rapes since the first of the year on the city’s east side. The suspect, 31, is being held by Detroit police.

Starting to get the idea? We say "innocent until proven guilty" on the one hand, and on the other we say "innocent until some goober says you seem to have come home awful late some nights, assuming that's you in your car there to begin with." But it can get worse:

L. Patrick Gray, who lives around the block from where the man was arrested, claims to have met the man after offering to plow the snow from his drive­way.

Gray said he met the man po­lice arrested after the last ma­jor snowfall in Detroit. Gray, 36, said he went to the home in the 11600 block of Lansdowne and asked the man whether he wanted him to plow his drive­way for $ 10, but the man said the price was too steep.

When Gray came back later to ask again, he said the man seemed to hide behind the door. Gray said he thought something was odd, but never contacted police.

“I really wish I had,” he said, “for the safety of the neighbor­hood.”

Well, that's just outstanding. Our alleged perp sure is a suspicious little fella! Seemed to hide behind his door when we came back to ask again if he'd give us some money for scraping his driveway! So let's let them sit on the veranda for a while.

The police chief's comment above is there for a reason. It's entirely possible to cheer for the good guys -- and to want rapists off the streets -- without declaring yourself part of the lynch mob. That's separate from a professional duty to report on the progress of a crime investigation, but it's not exclusive of that duty.

We're really talking about two separate duties here. One requires us to acknowledge that, however slight the odds might look, "innocent until proven guilty" is not just a slogan. The cops might have the wrong guy, and it wouldn't be the first time; whether the chance is one in five or one in five hundred thousand, we can't pretend the question isn't there.


The second is different. It's the moral duty of not being stupid. When you undertake to report on behalf of the public, you agree in advance to not be the sort of dimbulb who prints everything that comes over the transom. Even if there had been some support in the text for the "often" in the frontpage hed, what's the relevance of the assertion? Is the sort of standard you can, or would, apply to every arrest? What's next -- a search of his bookshelf for suspicious items?

I quote again a favorite bit of wisdom from an Old Editor: The obligation to cover is not an obligation to print.

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2 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Amen.

Plus, I can see the cops now: "He 'seemed to hide behind his door', did he? And you were, what now, sir? Harassing him by repeatedly asking him to pay you for something he said he didn't want you to do? Riiiight. Thanks, sir. May I suggest you stop bothering the man?"

Yes, perhaps he's guilty. But if he's not - and that IS possible - he'll now be "that weirdo" to all his neighbors and everyone who read the paper.

8:30 AM, January 22, 2011  
Blogger James said...

Perhaps it's the wonderment at getting people to eagerly talk about a case, when so many times information is withheld regardless of the media's right to it.

That's not an excuse, or even something that gives this article any logic. But it's the closest I can come to understanding the decision-making here.

10:26 PM, January 23, 2011  

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