Source’s criminal history: a deciding factor in coverage?

Finding credible individuals to interview or photograph as part of a news story can be a difficult task. Many journalists contact some sources routinely, such as the business reporter who speaks with the public relations staff of a major corporation on a regular basis. But finding subjects for one-off coverage can present a different, and possibly precarious, set of circumstances.

A Star reporter recently came to me for my take on what, if anything, he should do in regards to a recent story he’d written. Because there is a genuine dilemma here, I have elected not to name the subject or disclose the specific topic itself.

A caller contacted the reporter because she was concerned that the report featured a man whose face and name she recognized. He is a sex offender who has been required by law to register in Missouri’s database for a 1981 conviction for molesting a 10-year-old girl in California.

The topic of the story in The Star had nothing to do with children or crime. And this man was actually a rather minor part of the coverage overall, mentioned in four paragraphs at the beginning with one innocuous quote, as an example of an individual affected by the broader subject matter the story addressed. His photo was the story’s lead image, though.

The question, then, is whether the reporter would have gone ahead and used this particular man as a source knowing about his criminal background beforehand.

There are no absolutes here. For one thing, there isn’t a single umbrella way for any journalist to do a thorough background search on any subject. Years of police procedural TV shows have led many viewers to believe computer database searches of criminal histories and fingerprints are instantaneous and definitive, but that’s an almost laughably fictionalized version of how actual criminal records searches work.

In the real world, there is a vast variety of overlapping jurisdictions with different data formats and legal standards for reporting. Some records are public documents, but many are not available to journalists or other members of the public for a variety of reasons. And despite Google’s false siren song of putting the world at everyone’s fingertips, there are millions of public documents that have never been digitized and made searchable. Some will undoubtedly never leave the filing cabinet.

There’s also the legitimate question of whether a criminal background — even for an offense as reviled as child molestation — should be an automatic disqualifier for any coverage.

In my other role coordinating research for The Star’s newsroom, I’ve helped reporters check out subjects to avoid this kind of dilemma many times in the past, particularly when the story involved children.

In this case, the horse is out of the barn. Although it’s easy to say this in hindsight, the entire question of the source’s appropriateness would have been negated simply by finding another person whose situation reflected the story’s theme.

On the other hand, there’s a strong counter-argument that the criminal justice system establishes appropriate punishment and that a person’s debt is served afterward. Does that mean journalists should consider any prior offender off-limits even in the context of a completely unrelated story?

That strikes me as draconian. But then again, I’d feel differently if I were reading benign coverage of a person convicted of a crime against me, my family or loved ones.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Sept. 11, 2011.

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