Public Editor

When criminal charges are dropped, can the news coverage ever be truly equal?

Once an alleged crime is reported, that news lives on even if criminal charges are eventually dropped.
Once an alleged crime is reported, that news lives on even if criminal charges are eventually dropped. KRT

One of journalists’ fundamental responsibilities to their communities is to cover crime and justice. In the real world, there are sometimes inequities both in that system, and in the news coverage that it generates.

I spoke to a man last week who told me a credible story that made me sympathetic to his plight. I will keep the details vague here to protect him from another round of unwarranted scrutiny.

Some time ago, prosecutors charged my caller with forcible rape and multiple other related crimes. He strongly maintained his innocence then, as the initial news story in The Kansas City Star reported.

About seven months later, there was an important follow up: Prosecutors dropped all charges against the man, citing inconsistent statements from witnesses. The concomitant news story interviewed him, and he spoke of the considerable personal hardships he’d suffered while in jail.

Both stories in The Star’s print edition received roughly equal play, in my estimation. The first one about the charges ran on the fifth page of the A section, near the middle of the page.

The subsequent news of dismissing the charges ran a bit deeper in the section on Page 7A but at the top of the page. Neither included his booking photograph.

The charges were reported on a Wednesday, and their being dropped on a Tuesday. Those days reach roughly the same number of readers.

Could the two items — separated by several months — ever be truly equivalent? We know that not every reader sees the paper every day. There were undoubtedly thousands of people who read that the man was charged but missed the news about the resolution.

“Helpless is the only word I can use to explain how it feels,” he told me.

And that helplessness is much deeper when it comes to the Internet.

A Google search on his name returns many results linking to webpages about a well-known video game developer and actor who shares the same name.

But if you add in Kansas City to the search terms, the very first result is a link to the original story on KansasCity.com, The Star’s website, about the rape charges. The second hit is the news about the case being dropped.

Google keeps the intricacies of how it returns results secret, in order to keep publishers from gaming the system. That’s usually a good thing.

But its algorithms sometimes return results that make little sense. It would seem logical for the more recent hit to be at the top of the list, but that obviously isn’t the case here.

The man asked whether The Star would remove the initial report entirely, but I had to turn him down there.

Of course, I understand the reasons behind the request. But it would set a dangerous precedent. Although they ended up unsubstantiated, the initial charges were in fact filed. There was no error in how the first story was reported, so there is no journalistic justification for removing it.

Should the original story then be amended to include information about how it ended? I see no philosophical issue with that in theory, but making that change might easily introduce a new, difficult requirement.

It could set an expectation that every story be treated as a single, endlessly evolving unit. Not only would that be a significant logistical problem for the journalists charged with keeping it updated, but it could also quickly create an unwieldy experience for the reader.

I’ll continue to explore the issue with the newsroom. There may be a creative solution.

Derek Donovan will return Nov. 23.

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