Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Why we have the rule

A Charlotte businessman was murdered Friday morning on Independence Boulevard, the victim of an apparent robbery.

The basic rule: It's a murder when a jury says it's a murder. Until then, it's a "killing" (a homicide, if all the cops on that shift are monolingual in Latin) or -- nice blanket term -- a "death." Murder is a legal term for a particular kind of killing. Until that determination is made, you run a risk (ranging from smaller to larger, but never nonexistent) of being wrong when you decide to narrow down the broad category of homicide to the kind you think sounds good in a lede.

Arguments for the freewheeling use of "murder" come in two basic flavors:
1) Murder sounds more dramatic than "killing" or "death"! Funny, most people manage to sustain a reasonable level of interest when "found dead of a gunshot wound" occurs in their neighborhood or parking deck. How badly do you want to write a correction?
2) But [star columnist's name here] gets paid to call 'em like he sees 'em! Well, opinion is free, facts are sacred; how's it going with that correction?

Does it seem as if we're harping too much on that tiny risk of being wrong? Let's see:
A Charlotte man shot to death Friday morning in the Independence Towers parking lot was not the victim of a robbery but of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police now say.

"Police now say" is a little disingenuous. In the first story, the only elements attributed to the cops were "found lying in the parking lot" and "had been shot sometime around 9:35 a.m." Even the paper's "news partner" wrote "was shot to death Friday morning* during an apparent robbery, police said." (Don't you love the passive voice?)

There's more to this than one overeager blunder, though. Let's shift gears for a second and look at a story discussed on the editor's blog:

Q:You usually allow reader comments for stories posted on your Web site. But that's not the case with the coverage of the Skipper Beck prostitution story. Was this an oversight, or deliberate decision not to let readers weigh in?
A: We really like for readers to weigh in on the stories we post. But some topics consistently attract lewd, obscene or otherwise inappropriate comments. So, when such topics surface, we are faced with either constantly monitoring the comments or simply skipping the commenting function on a particular story. Prostitution, as you might imagine, is one of those topics. In the case of Skipper Beck, it quickly became clear that a few readers were determined to post offensive remarks.

Mr. Beck, if you're scoring along at home, runs a Mercedes dealership. You can see why, despite the paper's fascination with all the fallout from this high-end prostitution ring thing, you'd want to disable comments. What sort of comments showed up on the purported Independence Boulevard murder?

I am working as hard as I can to get my family back to the west coast. With the make up of this city and what I see comming down. I just do not want to live in the south anymore !

We all know these guns are illegal, being used by gun toting felons, the Drug Dealers are selling them with the Drugs Many Imported underground from Mexico, they are noted for their drug /weapon imports and human trafficking.

That one was from a poster whose earlier comment was deleted as "abusive." I don't know what that category covers, but here are a few comments I'd nominate from the TV station's story:

the media could help by posting descriptions of these animals. ever heard of america's most wanted? the liberal media is more interested in trying to hide the fact that there is an epidemic of black crime, expecially black against white crime, in charlotte. they care more about appearing as good little knee jerk lock step liberals than in helping the law abiding people of charlotte.

these creatures have taken over our streets. our justice system is a joke. if something does not change soon, we are headed for total anarchy. when that happens, the US will surely crumble. when and if they catch this creature, i wonder what race it will be? i think we already know the answer. these types of creatures need to be removed from our society. sounds barbaric? it is! and it is the only option we have if we want to take back our country.

Not to be blunt, but if you haven't noticed yet that stories about violent crime in Charlotte inevitably attract comment from the sort of bottom-feeding droolers who seem "determined to post offensive remarks" like these, you haven't been paying attention -- or, at least, you haven't been paying attention to stories that aren't about rich white guys who sell Benzes. Does it take a blunder on the cop beat to bring home the painfully obvious point that the comment feature ought to be disabled on all news stories, permanently, without exceptions?

It's clear that the Independence death story isn't racist in intent; it isn't the paper's fault that it has a bunch of unreconstructed swine among its readers. But it's racist in result, particularly in context of the prostitution story, and that's a pretty good argument for (a) professional caution in cop reporting and (b) an immediate end to the idea that reader comments are worth adding to news coverage.

* The hed does say "murdered"; let's not give the TV folks too much credit.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good story, fev. But I would like to point out that even the term "homicide" is not often accurate in cases like this. That term refers only to the killing of one person by another person. So, a soldier commits homicide, as does a police officer protecting other lives. So does the government when carrying out capital punishment.

Criminal, or culpable, are terms often attached to homicide to clarify the nature of the killing.

12:56 AM, January 21, 2009  

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