‘Net can’t trump due process

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our nation’s founding fathers knew what they were doing when they created a government and legal system built on the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” But, if we — as a society — aren’t vigilant about upholding this concept it can quickly become “guilty until proven innocent and called lots of nasty things in an online forum either way.”

Wait for actual criminal charges? Pshaw. No need for those because rumors are almost the same thing, right? Seek a trial in a court of law? Come on. That is so 19th Century.

Unfortunately this seems to be the mentalities of a very small, but vocal group of people today, hence the popularity of some websites operated by out-of-town companies that care nothing about our community, its people or about fairness. These sites offer forums that are virtual free-for-alls because they are uncontrolled and basically promote libelous and defamatory discussion.

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Most Americans still believe in the system on which our country was founded, although not everyone understands how that government and the media complement each other.

Some people have questions about how The Tribune decides whether or not to print someone’s name when they are connected to a crime. The answer is much simpler than many people think.

If someone is formally charged with a crime, his or her name will be printed in the newspaper. Until law enforcement formally does that, it will not be printed.

That’s it. The decision is really that simple in almost all situations. Exceptions might include cases in which law enforcement officers were seeking someone believed to be a serious threat to harm others and thus in the best interest to identify someone prior to arrest. All exceptions are handled case by case and are very rare.

It can be very frustrating to readers and the community when investigations drag on and on. Sometimes no charges ever materialize.

The suspected individual’s status, personal connections or wealth are never factors.

The proof of this is in black and white. Several prominent citizens have had their recent run-ins with the law printed. Mayor Rich Blankenship’s DUI is a good example.

Some naysayers were convinced The Tribune wouldn’t print the story. In fact the newspaper printed the most comprehensive report of it. Why? Because no one should receive special treatment, and the citizens of Ironton deserve to know when their chosen representatives have been charged with a crime.

But, until charges are filed, no one should be publicly accused.

The other thing to remember is that “innocent until proven guilty” still applies after someone is arrested. It takes due process in a court of law to determine innocence or guilt.

Far too many people are convicted in the court of public opinion, where cowards hiding behind a shield of anonymity play judge, jury and executioner with no oversight. The Tribune allows anonymous comments, but its staff has tools in place to create a forum that sparks conversation and discussion instead of attacks. We work to promptly remove “attack” comments as soon as they are spotted.

Our reporters are trained professionals who love the role they play in the community. They are here because they have a passion for what they do and take great pride in reporting the news quickly, accurately and fairly. They wouldn’t stand for me, or any other editor, distorting the integrity of their work.

We work hard to ensure the same rules apply to everyone. That has to be the case for a newspaper truly to serve its role as a community voice and watchdog.

I pursued a career in journalism because individuals such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate break-in for The Washington Post, Ida Tarbell’s work to expose Standard Oil that was the first investigative journalism and the New York Times’ publishing of the Pentagon Papers that helped create the concept of open records and government transparency.

I may never reach these pinnacles of excellence but I also would never do anything to damage what I believe was once — and can be again — one of the most honorable professions.

Simply put, The Tribune still believes in the fundamentals of our legal system, that no one should be accused before they are charged or convicted before they have their day in court. We also believe in the foundation of journalism — integrity, openness, fairness and accuracy.

We make mistakes. We aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean we will ever stop striving for that mountaintop.


Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.