A former New Berlin assistant bank manager was charged with embezzling $20,000 last summer, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
I’m not looking to pick on the Journal in particular, though I’m sure there are those who would enjoy that. It’s an excellent institution, working hard, I’m sure, to muddle through a tough era for daily newspapers.
In fact, the story I’ve highlighted is emblematic of a practice that’s so commonplace in local journalism, nobody much thinks about it. It’s rarely challenged.
Maybe it’s time, because here’s what irks me. Just like in thousands of similar stories in newspapers around the nation, the name of the accused is reported in the article and when the article was written, there had been no trial and no conviction. This alleged bank thief was not guilty in the eyes of the law. Just in the eyes of the public, I guess.
How can this be? We’ll get to that.
First, consider that stories like this are typically based on a criminal complaint, a document from the district attorney’s office. The criminal complaint is how the district attorney kicks off criminal proceedings. It’s where his office lays out the key details of its accusation and the specific crimes charged.
Many of the facts in a criminal complaint come directly from police officers, like where someone was standing, what they were saying or if they were holding a weapon. After all, police and deputies are the ones who are out there, talking to witnesses or at an active scene.
Now look at it from the newspaper’s perspective.
The criminal complaint is produced and made public record close to the time of the defendant’s first hearing, often soon after the alleged crime took place. It’s news.
The next opportunity to see more facts in the case could be weeks, months or even years from now. We may have to wait just about forever for a trial before any more facts worth reporting are made public. And covering a trial costs a newspaper in employee hours. There’s a lot of sitting and waiting in the legal world as anyone in the field will tell you. An editor can send a local reporter, who has too much work ever since his lunch buddy was laid off last year, to go cover a trial for days. Editors do so. They take the hit for the sake of quality. I know this as a former daily newspaper editor myself.
But it’s also true that an editor can have a reporter write up a criminal complaint in an hour or two.
Newspaper editors will defend naming those charged, with details from criminal complaints, by pointing out the public has a right to know. They’ll say people who have dealt with the accused in the past could choose to come forward or seek help now when they see the name. Or what if you’re dealing with this person in the present? Wouldn’t you want to know?
Or consider this: Should government send people away in darkness?
There was a time when naming people in newspapers didn’t matter quite so much. Reporting on the contents of criminal complaints is a practice that’s been handed down to us from the pre-Google Jurassic era. The name and salacious details would appear in print and then essentially disappear the next day. Oh sure, you could go to the library and find it in the archives, but who is going to bother?
Today, you just type in a name on your phone and like magic, it’s all there. Soon, I expect, a prospective employer will be able to ask Alexa about a name in the kitchen while making dinner.
A state-run database makes names of those accused of crimes available to all of us online, but the results don’t appear in Google searches and figuring out what it all means sometimes requires some expertise. So there are some barriers between Wisconsin’s Circuit Court Access System and curious users. Not so with a newspaper story that explains it all and is posted to Facebook.
Pressure on local newspapers to deliver the names is growing, not abating. Daily newspapers are fighting for clicks and all the data tells the industry that people click on crime. Names and photos are like drizzled honey on top of a crime story sundae.
Lashon hara (“evil tongue” in Hebrew) is a Jewish term for negative speech about another person. Lashon hara is prohibited by Jewish law. Rabbis and other scholars can offer much more nuance than I can, that’s for sure, but I can at least tell you that it refers even to the use of true speech with harmful results. Like making the names of those charged more available because it generates hits and shares?
With this mix of growing access and increasing pressure to share, our society has slid into generally accepted practices that may not be for the best.
We should do so with eyes open and start having a conversation about it.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.