Many of our readers likely noticed a few changes the Capital Journal made to our reporting beginning Sept. 30 — the lack of names in court reports and land transfers.
First, as the editor, this was a decision I made in light of growing changes in the newspaper industry.
There was a time when a newspaper’s coverage sat on a kitchen table for a day or two and then spent the rest of its life in an archive stack or on microfilm. Those days no longer exist.
It’s no secret the newspaper industry is slow to change, but it does happen. In the early to mid-1900s, it wasn’t uncommon to find graphic photos splashed across front pages nationwide. There’s a saying many still recognize today — “If it bleeds, it leads.”
But in an act of professional responsibility, most newsrooms moved away from such front-page gore and sensationalism despite public demand.
Well, the newspaper industry is at another crossroads — the internet.
I know the internet is nothing new, but in all fairness, I already admitted the industry is slow to change. Now our coverage lives forever on websites, easily accessible worldwide with the flick of a key and click on the mouse — a far cry from the kitchen table.
I’ve received emails and phone calls disagreeing with my decision and I’ve read all the comments on Facebook stating the same. There are two common themes — these are public records and reporting names act as a deterrent.
First public records. Yes, the information is a public record. But just because it is a public record isn’t reason enough to report it.
Many public records go unpublished on our pages and other media sources. The same goes for information publicly available but left out of regular reporting.
For example, youth offenders’ and victims’ names often remain left out. Why? Because journalists decided there should be a balance between privacy and the right to know.
There is also the concern that minor offenses shouldn’t come with a life sentence or prolonged ridicule. And make no mistake — the internet makes that scenario a reality playing out every day.
The idea people can find redemption, forgiveness and self-betterment is something many profess to hold dear. But in truth, seeing someone’s misdeeds on the internet from years past is very likely to throw a wrench in those high ideals for many people. And in the end, the simple curiosity of knowing who did what is a significant driving force behind wanting names published.
Now this change is for those minor and non-violent offenses, which is what the court reports detail. Crimes that significantly impact public safety, such as violent crimes, sex crimes, murder, crimes against children, DUIs resulting in damage and injury, breaches of public trust by officials and other major offenses, remain fair game with no alteration.
As for land transfers, all the information is still in the reports except for individual buyers’ and sellers’ names, excluding business. What is truly important, knowing what sold for how much and whether the land remains in the hands of state residents or Jane sold her house to John?
Identifying individuals in land transfers also comes with real safety concerns for little news value in return. Plastering a homebuyer’s name on the internet makes it easier for bad actors to locate a past victim. While the information is public record, it’s far more likely to appear in a Google search when published in a newspaper.
Think that’s an extreme case or not likely to happen? It comes from a concern raised by one of your neighbors here in Pierre.
The second common argument is publishing the names of low-level lawbreakers acts as a deterrent. Well, have the speeding offenses come to an end in Stanley and Hughes counties after years of publishing who received one? No, or this wouldn’t have come up.
In the 1990s, newspapers around the country joined police departments in publishing mugshots and arrest logs for prostitutes and men soliciting them — typically without any follow-up as to whether the case went to trial or how it ended. Prostitution and men soliciting them continued.
In the end, publishing offender names was never about deterring crime but shaming the individuals caught doing something wrong. We’re no longer going to contribute to that.
Remember, the names in the court reports and land transfers remain public records, and you don’t have to be a journalist to access them at your local courthouses and government offices.
I understand the urge to say an offender messed up and they have what’s coming to them. I also appreciate the public records argument. If you asked me a few short months ago about publishing them, I would have agreed with you. I wouldn’t have agreed about the news value, but it’s a public record — enough said.
Well, I was wrong. There is no shame in admitting I was wrong, only not acting on it after realizing it.
Finally, the Capital Journal and our fellow Wick Communications newsrooms started a Clean Slate program. The program allows people to petition the newsroom to remove, modify, update or deindex — make it not appear during internet searches — past coverage.
Why is this important? Because people shouldn’t continue to pay for minor infractions committed years ago (never mind that many of these stories only report arrests, not convictions). As I said, we often pride ourselves on the idea that people can find forgiveness and better themselves, but we’re also likely to hold every slight blemish against them when considering a job applicant or housing rentee.
I can’t be the only person who did something dumb when I was in my 20s, and I’m sure many others reading this did as well. Fortunately, the internet wasn’t a big thing at the time.
Not all petitions will find approval. Those serious offenses above aren’t eligible.
The petition is on our website at www.capjournal.com/cleanslate and is available now.
Adapting to the longevity and broader audience the internet provides is an ongoing process. We’ll make changes here and there to refine how and what we publish. Adapting and moving forward was the impetus behind my decision with the land transfers and court reports.
We’re listening to what you have to say. I’ve personally talked with many of you over the last week, and I’m always here if you have something to add. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 605-224-7301.
You can also send your thoughts in a Letter to the Editor to share with the community — we would love to share them and start a constructive conversation.