Sometimes, doing my job hurts the innocent
There aren’t many things I haven’t covered, but my first love always has been police and courts.
There’s a lot of reasons for that (warning: some of them sound pretentious).
In a broad, philosophical sense, I’ve always been fascinated by one of the basic human questions: Why is there evil?
Every police and court’s story involves evil on some level, or at least what society defines as evil. That covers a broad spectrum. I’ve covered murders and murderers. I’ve covered teenagers arrested for skinny-dipping. There’s a lot in between those.
I’ll never find out why people do bad things, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to.
The other thing about covering crime and courts is that it can simply be fun. Some of the funniest stories I’ve ever done were crime stories. One of the real shocking things for somebody of my vintage, who grew up watching “Batman” and its criminal geniuses, is the realization that a lot of people are criminals because they’re simply too dumb to hold down a straight job.
I once covered the trial of a guy who got charged with boosting a car and chopping it for parts. He explained to the jury that they had intended to steal a Ford, not the Nissan he and his buddies were accused of stealing. Fords are easier to break into, he said, and he diagrammed for the jury how one breaks into a Ford. He got convicted. (I covered another of his trials and ironically enough, he wound up going to prison for something he probably was innocent of).
I also liked covering cops and courts because I had the stomach for it. It’s not for everybody; you wind up seeing some fairly horrible things.
But as much as I enjoy that aspect of my work, there’s something I’ve always kept in mind. My work impacts people who are truly innocent victims, and I’m not just talking about the person on whom a crime was perpetrated. Even criminals have mothers, siblings, spouses, friends. It’s not easy to see a loved one’s name in one of my crime stories.
I’ve had such innocent victims talk to me (or my bosses) to express their displeasure, and that’s OK. For me, it comes with the territory, and for them, they have every right to complain. Unfortunately, the ultimate answer, “I’m just doing my job,” isn’t real satisfying.
One of the few legitimate scoops I’ve ever gotten involved a murder — a particularly gruesome one, with the victim stabbed more than 60 times — and the night it happened, I was at the scene. The guy’s landlord was called in to identify the body and he gave me the victim’s name.
Generally, police withhold that information for a day or two to give time to notify family. But I had it from a reliable source, so I put it in the story for the next day’s paper.
Needless to say, the family was upset, because some didn’t find out about the victim before the paper hit the streets. They came in to complain and fortunately, my editors backed me up (they didn’t always).
Could I have not put the name in? Sure. But at the end of the day, I had a duty to do so. Reporters will withhold information for a good reason, but it has to be the kind of detail that would screw up the investigation. After all, the murderer knew whom he was killing. Part of a reporter’s job, generally, is to give out all the information he can, except in certain special circumstances, and to do it quickly. That decision generally is made by an editor.
Was what I did wrong? No. Did it aggravate the suffering of those already shattered? Yes. There’s no good decision in a case like that. And there’s no explanation of Professional Standards or Duty that will amount to a hill of beans to those affected.
In the end, “it’s my job” is the only explanation, unsatisfying though it is.
Police reporting can be immensely rewarding, as well.
I once covered the case of a longtime child molester. When the first victim came forward, after this guy had been getting away with it for years, I wrote a very small story for my paper.
After it hit print, seven more young women came out. The guy will never breathe free air again.
The father of the first girl actually called me and thanked me for the story. Now, I have no illusions that doing that story made me any kind of hero; I was just doing my job there, too. And the real heroes were the girls who came forward. But that phone call was better than any professional award I’ve ever gotten.
Still, the guy had a wife and kids of his own (his victims were girls his daughter invited over for innocent slumber parties). I can’t imagine how hellish that was for them.
Ultimately, part of my job is to tell the story of my community and its people. A lot of good stuff happens anywhere, but there’s bad stuff too, and that’s part of that story.
All I can do is try to understand the pain of the innocents, and to remember that however uneasy that realization is for me, it’s a cruel joke compared to the suffering such stories can’t help but cause.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: email@example.com