Public Editor

Custody battles: Frustrating, legally intricate - but are they news?

I just got off the phone with a father who is understandably upset. From his version of events, his estranged ex-wife has not allowed him to see either of their children for months now, in violation of what he says were visitation orders in their divorce decree. And worse, the ex-wife has successfully enforced his obligation to provide child support.

It’s uneven application of different elements of the settlement, he says (remembering of course that it’s possible if not likely that the ex-wife’s version may be different). He would like a reporter at The Star to write a story about it.

I get suggestions such as this extremely often. Related topics include pleas for stories about runaway teens, probate disputes and various other cases involving torts — meaning civil suits, not criminal prosecutions.

Are these cases necessarily not news? Of course now. In fact, many such stories do make their way into the paper and on a regular basis. One of the highest-interest topics in recent years are the various civil suits against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph over allegations that it did not prevent or properly investigate cases of child abuse by priests. Apart from some criminal prosecutions, there have also been civil suits that the paper has covered. Some readers have objected strenuously to that coverage, arguing that it’s not on the same level as the criminal cases.

I usually pass these requests for stories along to the newsroom, though as I say above, there are nearly always multiple accounts on what’s really going on. And I’ve spoken to officials who work with various social services agencies, both governmental and private, who tell me the “Rashomon effect,” where different parties perceive the same actions differently, is real.

Journalists need to weigh each individual case on its own merit. But it’s a little like random muggings and non-fatal shootings: They’re unfortunately so commonplace that they have to be intrinsically different and significant to the general public to rise to the level of news usually.