It’s an issue I struggle with at least once a week, if not more — weighing the public’s right to know with a child’s right to privacy.
In my job, I run into a lot of kids in trouble with the law for many reasons: drunken driving, burglarizing, robbing, stealing, beating up their parents/teachers/counselors, and the worst, sexually abusing their siblings or neighbors. These are the kids who need the most protection and care. But these are also the kids from whom other children — and sometimes the public at large — need to be protected. Really, who wouldn’t want to know the identities of the five teenagers who, for no reason, beat up 24-year-old Alex Morwood so badly that his jaw was broken? Morwood was just out walking his dog, for crying out loud.
The latest issue is one I have the most trouble with: Kids who are charged with sexually abusing other kids, either relatively close to their age or younger. Just last week, I had to write a three-sentence brief about sexual abuse charges against Brandon Topping. I am all too aware that a mere three sentences can turn someone’s life around for the worst, and in Brandon’s case (as well as every other child I’ve encountered in this situation) I had to step back and really think about things. I knew his 11-year-old brother, Travis, was run over by a truck Aug. 20 in the Road Ranger parking lot and is just starting physical therapy. I considered the fact that, as one commenter on my story said, other students would probably turn against him if they knew what was going on.
I don’t think of the people I write about as words in print. I see them as human beings, imperfect, just like me. How would I feel if that person was me? My child? Of course I’d want to protect them. But the First Amendment, the public’s right to know the truth, is the most important thing there is. Rumors and gossip can run rampant, and schools are like a hyperactive game of Telephone — what one day is merely a rumor that so-and-so’s arm brushed so-and-so’s breasts on accident can easily turn into the raping and pillaging of half the Sixth Grade class. If someone is facing criminal charges, though, that’s a fact.
As a journalist, I have to trust that our prosecutors and Juvenile Courts are considering all the ramifications when they move forward with serious criminal charges against people — because it’s then, and only then, that we write anything. Most of the time, the courts keep key parts of the case confidential, which is why I can’t share them unless the people involved are willing to talk. Most of the time, they’re not.
I know that three sentences in a newspaper aren’t going to tell you the whole story. But in the end, I do the best I can do for you. I will tell you when anyone of any age is facing a serious criminal charge and what becomes of that charge because I care about that person, and I care about you.