Life not simple, neither is journalism but Messenger has stuck by public’s right to know
We at the Sanpete Messenger have been reeling this past week from public reaction to our coverage of the Ephraim police investigation and officer resignations—as well as from new revelations about police cases where documentation and follow-up have been insufficient, to say the least.
My staff has had numerous meetings about journalism ethics, what to say, what not to say, what sources we should and shouldn’t use, and how to promote unity in the community, if that’s possible.
To get a clear view of this deliberation process, you need to know a little about our staff. Over the years I’ve owned the newspaper, I’ve had people of varying skill levels writing for me. In the past month, I have been able to bring back two of the most talented people who have worked for me over the past 16 years.
As things stand, we have five people on our editorial staff. Two have master’s and two have bachelor’s degrees. (One of those is a couple of credits short of his bachelor’s, but certainly has the equivalent). One staff member has the equivalent of an associate degree but plans to pursue further journalism education.
Collectively, our staff has an average of 16 years of experience in journalism and related work. Those qualifications are almost unprecedented for a tiny newspaper like the Messenger.
Are we a bunch of flaming liberals churning out fake news? I’m sorry to disappoint some people, but we’re nothing of the sort. Two of our staff members are what I would describe as conservative Democrats. Three are Republicans or right-leaning, including one who is a very conservative Republican.
All of us are committed to the facts, including accurately reporting what people say to us. We spend hours every week verifying spellings, dollar figures, geographic information, historical information and more.
In one of our meetings last week, I told my staff I was getting input that the police story was dividing the Ephraim community. I told my staff, “People are suggesting we should let the story die to avoid inflaming people on either side.”
Of course, squelching public information goes against everything I’ve been taught, taught to others, lived and breathed over 40 years in journalism.
In the staff meeting, I said, in essence, “Maybe I could say in my column that people can and should support both sides in the controversy. They can acknowledge Ron Rasmussen made mistakes over his years as police chief. But now their elected officials have decided to retain him, everybody should support him in adapting to a new job description and rebuilding the department.
“I can encourage people to also support the officers. They had the courage, at great sacrifice, to act on their convictions. Their actions dramatized the need for change, and in fact, will almost certainly result in change. They also deserve thanks for their years of dedicated service to the community.”
One of my staff members piped up. He has been reviewing police dispatch summaries and identifying cases where police reports were missing. “Who supports the victims,” he asked. “I’ve cried a couple of times over the weekend. This is real. These are real people.”
He mentioned one of the cases. It was dispatched as people hearing children screaming inside a home, saying, “Why are you hurting me? What did I do wrong?”
When I walked in the office this morning, my managing editor told me about a court case he had just learned about. According to police and court records, a 28-year-old woman from Mt. Pleasant took a 12-year-old boy and another boy (age not provided) from Manti to her house in Mt. Pleasant and kept them overnight without their parents’ permission.
A few days later, the same woman apparently took a juvenile to a park restroom in Manti and asked him take photos of her topless.
My immediate reaction was, “I think we need a story on that.”
A few hours later, after my managing editor dug into the story a little further, there was a twist. The woman’s attorney had requested a neuropsychiatric evaluation because the woman has Huntington’s Disease, a neurological disorder that can affect thinking and memory.
Life is not simple. Neither is journalism. I decided parents need to know about dangers to their children lurking in our communities. I told my writer to go ahead but to mention the neuropsychiatric evaluation high in the story.
That brings me back to Chief Rasmussen. People have a right to know and a need to know what goes on, and what has gone on, in their communities.
Depending on developments, the Ephraim police story will probably drop off the front page. But I remain committed to reviewing all 1,600 of the calls Chief Rasmussen responded to over the past 10 years and informing the public about the documentation and follow-up, or lack thereof, in those cases.