Facts harder to reach than conclusions

Faced with the bare facts, any media hack would draw the same conclusion: there’s a difference in news value between a threatening letter directed at students, and shin-kicking shenanigans on the high seas.

Which is why some alleged criminal incidents appear prominently in this paper, and others are relegated to the Police Blotter.

Chances are, all readers know about the threat of violence at the high school last month. But the shin-kicking? While we know some folks, upon opening the Review, turn immediately to the back pages to read about recent criminal (and sometimes humorous) incidents, others might not bother. For those who don’t, here’s the short version of the latter incident: Man goes camping at Blake Island. Man gets drunk, violates a court order, spews obscenities at anyone in sight and, when confronted by Bainbridge Police who were called in to assist, resists arrest. Things turn slightly slapstick when, during the man’s obligitory boat ride to Port Orchard and the county jail, he trades shin-kicks with the arresting officer while “mocking the intelligence and career choices of those around him.”

What does one incident have to do with the other? Nothing, except in the way their respective portrayals play with our perceptions.

The threatening message at Bainbridge High School was a very serious matter of public safety involving a large number of students during a time of extreme sensitivity to school violence. The other, relayed with some levity, was the case of a man who… well, with only a police officer’s short narrative from which to draw, one can only speculate. But fairly or otherwise, we as citizens draw conclusions about both incidents based on how the facts of each are reported.

Hence the inherent difficulty in covering ongoing criminal investigations. We, along with other local news sources, took some heat for our coverage of the school threat. Some readers said our stories unfairly implicated a young man who hadn’t actually been charged with making the threats. But with Bainbridge parents wondering whether it would be safe to send their children to school the next day, which is the graver sin: reporting prominently, before all the facts of the case can be tallied, that a suspect has been arrested, or, to avoid casting a shadow of guilt on a youth who must be presumed innocent, waiting until formal charges are filed?

Newspapers almost always err on the side of disclosure, counting on the professionalism of the police in their investigation while taking precautions to protect the identity of juvenile suspects. The Review and other local outlets reported to the best of our abilities the facts we were given by authorities. Nearly three weeks later, many facts still haven’t surfaced; as more do, we will continue to report them accurately and without bias.

As we do, we all need to remember one key concept, too often overlooked whether crime coverage appears on the front page or the back. That concept is “alleged.” Without due process, nothing is certain.

The shin-kicker incident could be funny. Or, because it involves not an abstraction but a real person who may be dealing with who knows what issues, it could be terribly sad.

There, both incidents converge.