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Is it a crime wave? A reporting surge? Or both?

Posted Monday, December 7, 2009, at 9:21 AM

In the last year or so, The Marshall Democrat-News has published more stories than it used to about crime in the city of Marshall and throughout Saline County.

The newspaper has always covered court news. Even if we don't do a longer story on a specific case, we report the disposition of cases in the Circuit Court and the Associate Court in our weekly "At the Courthouse" feature.

We don't cover municipal court or traffic court for the very simple reason that we just don't have enough staff to do it.

What's changed about our coverage is that since late 2008, we don't wait for law enforcement to send us a report. One of our reporters, usually me, goes to the courthouse every morning and picks up probable cause statements. These are the formal court documents that charge specific individuals with specific crimes. They include detailed incident reports from law enforcement agencies across the county about those crimes.

After reviewing the documents, we select cases for front or back page stories. We pick cases for longer stories for several reasons. One obvious reason is that the crime is very serious -- one in which the charges are felonies. Another, less-obvious reason is that we sometimes select a misdemeanor for more thorough coverage because it's an example of one individual being charged repeatedly with the same crime.

Statements the accused make during their arrests are also fodder for more extensive treatment. It's hard to pass up the chance to report that someone being arrested claimed mistaken identity, saying a twin brother was the guilty party, but was then unable to give the twin's birth date, for example.

Crimes against children always make the front page. And crimes against animals are often there, too.

Every case gets a second chance at publication on page one or the back page when the case is resolved by conviction or a guilty plea.

Every Wednesday morning (for Associate Court) and every other Monday morning (for Circuit Court), I sit in the courtroom, listening to the dispositions of the various cases on the docket for that day. Based on the information gathered, we select stories for the front or back page of the newspaper, giving special attention to those we've already covered at the time charges were brought.

Here again, it's the more serious crimes, the unusual plea agreements or the comments of the judge, the defendant or anyone else in the courtroom that cause a story to be written. If we wrote a story at the time of the arrest, we almost always print a follow-up story with the resolution.

From time to time, we get angry comments in the Comments section of our crime and court stories, or on the Speak Out blog, that we "never" publish any good news. Or we have quoted to us, over and over, the old maxim "if it leads, it bleeds," suggesting we look eagerly for reasons to publish the bad news rather than the good.

Because of those comments, several months ago we did one of our highly unscientific polls, asking our readers to select what types of stories they'd like to see more of.

Crime "won," hands down.

It may be that there are a number of readers who think we cover too much of it, but there are many, many more who just can't get enough.

No matter what side of the fence you're on, though, the one question that's popped up with some frequency is whether the increase in the number of stories is driven more by an increasing number of crimes or by our increased attention to it.

And the answer is -- both. And for more on that story, see page one today.

Showing comments in chronological order
[Show most recent comments first]

The D-N does provide extensive and fair coverage. They beat the pants off the Big City daily where I live. Good job, Kathy.

-- Posted by AF Brat on Mon, Dec 7, 2009, at 10:01 AM

I will admit that I like to read who is getting into what trouble. I guess I fall into the 'nosey' category of Marshallites. I also think of all the 'stories' you don't cover, specifically traffic court. All the piddly cases go there, I know I got a traffic violation and the sheer volume of drug cases was staggering. If anyone wants a good chuckle, go listen to some of the crap that people come up with.

I also think people are tired of the crap, I know I am. Sure I might be able to over look someone door dinging my car at Walmart...but when I am sitting inside the darn thing I am likely to say something.

Anyone who has a police scanner knows the police are always at Walmart for a shoplifter, the MDN would need a special section for just those police reports.

I also think the increase in reports is leaving our police department stressed, since I personally have a report up there that has yet to have anything done about it. I realize mine is minor, but still sending a message as a community will help...at least I want to think it will.

Good blog Kathy!!

-- Posted by Scarpetta on Mon, Dec 7, 2009, at 5:24 PM

"Nosey" or not publishing names and details about people who are not found guilty in a court of law is totally irresponsible. There are a ton of stories every week where people are "charged" by the police this or that or so and so was in a car accident. It amounts to little more than small town slander and makes our community a less than nice place to live. Think differently? Lets hope that your kid or grandchild or family member never does ANYTHING wrong in Marshall. Your family name will be all over the paper with anonymous commenters taking petty snipes at your kids or family. Maybe even commenting indirectly at their family. Plus, everything is archived. If that person ever does anything with their life, that article can be brought up to haunt them (forever). Hope you don't have an aspirations to run in politics if you live in Marshall thanks to the Marshall Democrat News. Even if they have been found innocent in a court of law or if charges were dropped that story will be available for those trying to dig up dirt. Basically there are certain things that, even if you are curious, are non of the publics business (unless there is an immediate danger).

-- Posted by Socrates on Tue, Dec 8, 2009, at 6:26 PM

Socrates, please cite some examples for us. We did, of course, publish stories about the Shepard murders, and one of those defendants was found not guilty. I don't think anyone would categorize those stories as "small town slander."

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Tue, Dec 8, 2009, at 8:43 PM

Here is a model of journalism every journalist should rise to. The rules of journalism per Jim Lehrer of PBS.


Here are a few highlights and some comments for each.

"* Assume everyone is innocent until proven guilty."

Being charged with a crime does not mean a person is guilty of a crime. Your paper's little disclaimer at the bottom does not absolve the paper of doing wrong. You are calling out an American citizen and linking that person to a crime before that person has had their day in court. Until a person is found guilty, unless there is a legitimate reason for reporting the charge (e.g. public is in immediate danger if you don't), there is no reason to publish these stories. It does not matter that "most of the people" you are putting the public spotlight on end up being charged in court. If there is a possibility that a single person might be innocent there should be no reason to publish their names and drag their names and family through the mud. Innocent until proven guilty. This paper is superseding its role and it needs to be stopped. As a citizen of Marshall, I should have right to have the details of my life left private unless I come to you. The police should not be talking to you about anybody's case. You have no right to that information and you have no right to prejudice the town against people who may be innocent of the charges laid against them. Once they found guilty in a court of law they are fair game. I think such reporting would be "trash" but at least you would be reporting legitimate trash at that point. Anytime before then is gossip and it is wrong.

"* Journalists who are reckless with facts and reputations should be disciplined by their employers."

Reporting hearsay is reckless. The reputation of the people of this town should be your first priority. Period. Reporting a charge before a person has had their day in court is reckless. It shows that your paper is going after gossip first for paper sales and does not really care about the people of this town. Remember this could happen to anybody in this town or to your family. All you need is somebody to throw a false charge your way and this paper to get wind of it. Treat everybody's reputation as if it was your own.

"* Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story mandates otherwise."

If you are going to report a crime and publish names, you need to qualify the purpose of doing so. Where is the danger to the public? You need to explicitly let the reader know why are breaking your journalistic integrity. I see none of that. Ever.

"* I am not in the entertainment business."

People are curious about the dirt on people in this town. That does not mean you have the right to publish it. Publishing stories about alleged charges only makes Marshall look like a dangerous and crime ridden town. It is not. Now if you did a story on the drug problem in Marshall in an attempt to promote healing and community support around some positive movement that would be great. What I am seeing is crime stories that have no content whatsoever. Such stories nothing but smut. They provide no useful information to the public and bring disgrace on a person that could be innocent. You all need to get your priorities straight. You should be here to serve this town. Not scare it or to fuel the gossip mills. The fact that you are defensive about this is troubling. I sincerely hope this stops, because Marshall deserves a paper that is a positive force for building this community.

-- Posted by Socrates on Wed, Dec 9, 2009, at 8:40 PM

Sorry, Socrates. We do have a right to publish court records. They are public records, per state law. Any citizen can request to see them. As the local newspaper, we serve as the medium for providing people access to information they have a right to see. Our state even provides an online service to allow citizens to follow court cases if they wish. You may not like it, and you're welcome to argue that the law and our policy are unwise, but we're within our rights and are in fact fulfilling our duty to the community by publishing this information.

-- Posted by Eric Crump on Wed, Dec 9, 2009, at 9:41 PM

Every single word of our stories is taken from reports from law enforcement, and are not in any way based on rumor, supposition, hearsay or gossip. The reports are factual and are a matter of public record. It isn't necessary for us to make anything up, as you very strongly imply, because the facts of the situation speak, and very loudly, for themselves.

Mr. Lehrer's point of view is one person's opinion. Yours is another. I don't believe it's being "defensive" to disagree with both of you.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Wed, Dec 9, 2009, at 9:53 PM

People aren't charged on the basis of speculation or inuendo. There are legal standards that have to be met -- called, as you might suspect, "probable cause."

That means an investigation was done and the record reviwed for legal sufficiency. That review is the due process at this stage.

The person is, and remains, "not guilty" in the eyes of the law. That does not mean that they are "innocent" and the community will often decide thay are not. The two concepts are related but NOT identical.

The MDN, especially Kathy, does a much better job than most (virtually all) newspapers in maintaining a fair prospective in its reporting.

-- Posted by AF Brat on Thu, Dec 10, 2009, at 1:12 AM

After a night's sleep and sincere reflection on Socrates' comments of yesterday, plus another look at Lehrer's "rules," I have some things to add to my earlier comments.

Those individuals who are arrested and charged with crimes, whether they are felonies or misdemeanors, should have no expectation of privacy. They are people who, authorities believe, have violated the laws we've asked our legislators to enact for our protection. They have been arrested by law enforcement officers and charged by the prosecuting attorney for good and sufficient reason. A good portion of our tax money pays the expenses of the system we have ourselves initiated -- we, the people.

And we, the people, have the right to hear about those crimes. It is not a "personal matter" when one person steals from another, assaults another, possesses and sells drugs to another. Those are public statements, if you will, of disagreement with the laws we, the people, have established.

The right of the accused is to have a speedy and *public* disposition of their case. If they plead guilty or are convicted properly, they will receive their punishment. If they are acquitted, they will be released. For either of those outcomes, the newspaper will print the story, which becomes a *public* record.

It's my belief that the rules Lehrer proposes are his reaction to intrusions by the media into the personal lives of people who are in the public eye and have not committed any crime, but who are nonetheless the subject of endless speculation, rumor, gossip and hearsay comment when information about their private lives becomes public -- Tiger Woods is only the most recent victim, certainly of his own transgressions, but also of an irresponsible segment of the media.

Our printing of the stories we write about local crimes is neither irresponsible nor lacking in integrity.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Dec 10, 2009, at 9:15 AM

Kathy said, "After reviewing the documents, we select cases for front or back page stories. We pick cases for longer stories for several reasons. One obvious reason is that the crime is very serious -- one in which the charges are felonies. Another, less-obvious reason is that we sometimes select a misdemeanor for more thorough coverage because it's an example of one individual being charged repeatedly with the same crime."

Being a good, constitution loving American, I just have to take a contrarian stance to the above explanation, but with all due respect. Are the people whose names are not "selectively" published in the MDN more equally protected in their right to privacy than those whose names are published?

When journalists "selectively" pick the names of people charged with crimes, doesn't that impart a little too much God like power to journalists under "freedom of the press" to provide information about certain people's lives and not others? What journalistic parameters, or checks and balances, are in place at MDN to insure their journalists do not inadvertently, or through some bias, disfavor, or favor, some people over others?

When people charged with a crime are selectively published in a local, small town newspaper, wouldn't it be fairer to at least briefly list all the names and charges of everyone, even if other details are omitted? Who and what a MDN journalist may think is important may not be who and what is important to each MDN reader. With a published list of all crimes and those charged, "citizen journalists," would then be free to do their own freedom of information act searches on the details surrounding "who is charged with what," IMO.

Given the selective coverage of charged crimes by MDN, based on staff limitations, etc., perhaps a new adage put under MDN's name should be: "Not all the news that's fit to print, but a lot that is." Sincerely/Respectfully

-- Posted by Ray on Thu, Dec 17, 2009, at 4:53 PM

Ray, thanks for your comments.

Eventually, all criminal cases are published in the "At the Courthouse" section of the print versions of the paper, so we're not really neglecting anyone, at least not in our print edition. And Missouri's Casenet web site provides free and easy access to both criminal and civil crime records - when we say "according to unofficial online court records," we're talking about Casenet.

I'm not the sole arbiter of what is selected for a longer story - Eric Crump, our editor, and Shelly Arth, our publisher, have the last word, of course.

And let me take this opportunity again to make it clear that nothing in any of our stories is based on hearsay, gossip or rumor. We use only the incident report, which accompanies the probable cause statement from the prosecutor's office and comes directly from the arresting agency, and we do not publish any names until charges are actually filed.

Looking back at the content of the editorial here, I see that I could have made it clearer that eventually, all the names we have are published, even if we do not do a longer story, so thank you for giving me that opportunity.

-- Posted by Kathy Fairchild on Thu, Dec 17, 2009, at 9:10 PM

Thanks Kathy, for fairly and accurately keeping the good people of Marshall well informed about crime factors affecting Marshall. The increase in crime reporting provides vital information, but seeing the increasing crime rate is disconcerting.

Crime information is key for leaders, and members, of society to make wise decisions about societal governance. Crime is not an acceptable part of any civilized social order. That bit of news may only be apparent to some offenders of the law, when they see their names in print next to the charges against them.

I'm curious to see if the increase in crime reporting will have any deterrent affect on the rate of crime present in Marshall.

Legal system deterrents may, or may not, be sufficient to stop the increased criminal activity, but how many criminal sentences will need to be handed out? How many prison spaces will need to be funded? How many new prisons will the taxpayers need to build? How many citizens will need to be jailed? Who will be left to pay for it all?

"It didn't used to be like this," said Judge Bellamy in a recent MDN story. I agree. In my opinion, morality used to motivate citizens to "do the right thing" without as great a need for the "rod" of legal deterrence. But perhaps that's all irretrievably lost to history now.

How then are Marshallites, going to live their lives in the presence of all the challenges they face? When 2010 soon appears, what will be their motivation, their strength? Will it be government, work, money, entertainment, technology, education, law, or other? Will it be drugs, or criminal enterprise? Is there any time, or place, left for God, family and church?

I'm hoping all the citizens of Marshall will take every opportunity to make the world proud of them in 2010, even though the world around them seems ever more crazy and out of control.

-- Posted by Ray on Fri, Dec 18, 2009, at 4:29 AM

I'll be the first to admit that until I began working at the Prosecutor's office as the Victim's Advocate that I did not realize just how unbiased, fair, and factual the stories that your team puts into print inside The Marshall Democrat-News. I can state that because you are completely fair: You do not include names in your published newspaper when charges have not been filed and even when you do publish someone's name in the newspaper is it because the defendant has been officially charged. You do both these things without giving your own opinion on any level. I miss seeing you there Kathy; you always had a smile on your face and pen and paper taking notes throughout the entire court process. I think you do a WONDERFUL job at doing these articles and while some may disagree and come at you really harsh, others including the victims' see this as their chance to obtain closure by acknowledging and hopefully closure for the criminal behavioral that happened to them.

-- Posted by peopleamazeme on Tue, Dec 22, 2009, at 10:01 PM

"...others including the victims' see this as their chance to obtain closure by acknowledging and hopefully closure for the criminal behavioral that happened to them."

Shouldn't that be "alleged victim?" Remember, even though a person has been charged with a crime, they are not guilty until convicted, nor is the person a "victim" until the accused is convicted, or do things work differently in Marshall? Is that manner of speaking just a result of the they way Victim's Advocates have been trained by the Violence Against Women Act as they follow gender feminist ideology over facts in evidence and established laws? Hmm? The last time I checked the 5th, 6th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution still supported the presumption of innocence, but under VAWA it appears more and more as if its been changed to "guilty until proven innocent." That's the way it worked under Stalinism.

-- Posted by Ray on Mon, Aug 2, 2010, at 2:58 AM

Fodder? Did someone say "Fodder"? Oh my gosh...NO you don't! Last I knew...you wait until the P.A. gives permission for a new release and THEN you tell certain things. What a pathetic system. Marshall politics!

-- Posted by bsc1223 on Sat, Feb 25, 2012, at 8:32 AM
Response by Eric Crump/Editor
According to state law, incident reports are public documents.

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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.
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