Newspapers are not courtrooms
Last week, we got a curious note in our mail slot. An anonymous accusation was scrawled across the top: “Why is this not being reported?”
Inside was a story printed from an online news service that covers criminal and civil courts for lawyers. The story detailed a civil complaint against the Livingston County government, a non-profit agency and an individual.
At the bottom of the story was a link to the actual complaint, 25 pages of the most incendiary, salacious details I’ve read in a long time. The plaintiff claims to have been repeatedly sexually assaulted over a number of years by a person in a position of great authority — and that reports to local law enforcement fell on deaf ears.
Why is this not being reported?
This is a very good question that deserves an open and honest answer — one that hopefully explains the position and role of this newspaper in our community.
A person’s reputation is a valuable thing, so much so that when another person intentionally sets out to damage the reputation of a private individual, the wronged party can claim specific monetary damages.
This is called “libel.”
Typically, most reporters — especially at the local level — earnestly write about the goings-on in their hometowns without any hidden agendas. We strive to accurately reflect the goings-on of our governments, courts, service organizations, businesses and citizens.
Sometimes we don’t get things quite right, but usually the stakes aren’t too high and things can be easily cleared up with a simple printed correction.
A person’s reputation, on the other hand, is another matter. Once harmed, it may never be rebuilt. But it’s hard to prove libel against a newspaper unless you can prove malicious intent.
We’re often approached by estranged spouses, criminal suspects, political candidates and others who claim great social injustice. They ask us to “do our jobs” and investigate those responsible for their troubles.
“Oh, and please don’t use my name,” they add.
If we do the story and fail to be complete or completely correct, we’re left to deal with the legal aftermath.
We trust our police and courts to do the right thing — and when they don’t, we trust higher legal authorities to resolve the problem. We follow these proceedings with great interest because the people making arrests and prosecuting cases believe they have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.
We attempted to reach the plaintiff’s attorney for more comment, but he didn’t call us back in time for this issue. We also spoke to the Livingston County Sheriff and District Attorney. Since the county is being sued, and these agencies are funded by the county, they could not comment at length. However, District Attorney Tom Moran had this to say: “At the conclusion of this civil case, there will be no question that we investigated this matter fully with an eye toward criminal prosecution.”
If a jury eventually finds that the accuser in this lawsuit was indeed victimized, she deserves justice — and you’ll read about the trial here.
However, we’re not a courtroom. The newspaper is not the place to accuse, try and convict someone of a serious crime.