One of the first things you learn in any decent journalism degree program is that journalists, whether they work for a national television outlet or a tiny community newspaper, must operate according to the Journalists Code of Ethics.
There are a few biggies in this written code. For instance, ethical journalists should:
- Seek the truth and be accurate, honest and fair in their reporting;
- Minimize harm, which covers a lot of ground but basically means be a decent human being and show compassion; and
- Act independently, which covers everything from paying sources (do not even think about it), disclosing conflicts of interest and not giving advertisers favored treatment to labelling sponsored content and “shunning hybrids that blur the lines between news and advertising.”
One of the rules in the code of ethics that sometimes gets lost in the deadline frenzy is the rule stating journalists must “be accountable and transparent … and explain ethical choices and processes to audiences.”
That’s the rule this editorial would like to address.
In our March 7, 2019 issue, we ran a front page story about a recent cluster of police incidents involving Camas High School students. The story generated an incredible amount of discussion online, and we’ve heard administrators at Camas High have been getting a number of phone calls and emails with questions citing this article.
After one administrator implied we had approached this issue with malice — “to inflame the community” as they wrote to Camas High staff in an email sent to us by an anonymous member of the community — we thought it best to describe the process behind this article.
First, let’s dispel any notion that we covered this issue to inflame the community.
As the person who looked into the police incidents and wrote the article, I can tell you without any hesitation that statement is false.
When I first noticed the “cluster” of police incidents at Camas High, I wasn’t even looking for anything related to Camas High School. Rather, I was looking at a regional crime map to make sure we weren’t missing an important crime-related story.
What I saw on that particular day was the numeral “5” hovering over what appeared to be Camas High. Upon closer inspection, I saw there were five police reports connected to the school involving drugs, alcohol, theft and a weapons violation. Intrigued, I requested all five reports from the Camas Police Department.
At this point, I wasn’t even sure it would be a story, much less a story involving something as serious as a student possibly bringing a semi-automatic handgun to class.
The police in Camas and Washougal are great about getting records back as fast as possible, but it still takes some time for them to black out all information not included in public records.
When I received the reports, several weeks had passed since the incidents occurred. I read the reports and realized at least one of them — the reported gun in the backpack — was an important piece of information for Camas High families, if not for the entire community.
I started making calls to the police and administrators at Camas High the same day I received the reports. My questions were along the lines of “Is this an unusual amount of arrests and referrals to prosecutors for a high school?” and “How do these numbers compare to other schools in Washington or the United States?”
The school district representative, as well as the chief of police and school resource officer, told me, “Yeah, this seems like an unusually high number of police reports for Camas High in such a short span of time.” This unusual “cluster” of incidents was the gist of my story.
And, again, it was never meant to inflame, but only to inform.
One article can’t begin to cover the myriad issues surrounding policing in our public schools and it was never meant to. While we, as journalists, would love it if every story wrapped up every question in one neat little bundle, as anyone who listened to This American Life’s hit podcast “Serial” knows, sometimes journalists just can’t answer all the questions.
This is especially true for community newspaper journalists like myself, who are often writing several stories every week and trying to fit about 90 hours worth of work into a 40-hour week.
It was my hope that this story would be a jumping-off point for more articles on policing in our schools. If you are curious about this issue and have questions you would like to have answered, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Kelly Moyer, Post-Record editor