Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

I know you've heard me rant plenty about the Sacramento Bee and their predilection for posting more information than is maybe necessary. (*ahem*State Worker Salary Database*ahem*)

I know, I know: There are plenty of things out there that are public information and the People of California have a "right" to know.

Most information that is public record is obtainable from the record's source.

The average person can't be assed to hunt it down, so it's not usually a big issue.

But if you wiggle the information under the nose of the general public, it becomes a totally different issue.

Take, for example, publishing the identity of a local law enforcement informant.

Now, let me make something clear before I go any further:

The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office made the decision to put the informant on the stand in a Superior Court case. Court records are public records. Any yaywho can contact the court and get copies of the record in any case. Court cases are also, usually, public. Any of those same yaywhos can go on down and sit in on a trial.

The Sacramento County District Attorney's Office made the decision that his testimony in this case was so crucial to their case that it outweighed maintaining the secrecy of his identity.

To reiterate: Sac County DA put the informant on the stand, knowing it would make his identity public; once informant testified, his identity became a matter of public record.

The problem I have is that there is a very big difference between something being a matter of public record as on file with the Superior Court, and that same information being published to an estimated 707,000 Sunday readers. For the print version.

Never mind how many people may have read it online.

Any information whore (not that I know anyone like that, mind you) can tell you that it's pretty easy to get information about person if you're determined enough and have the right identification.

Think I'm kidding?

This morning, "one or more gunmen" opened fire on the former house of the informant (his grandparents house)(yes, they were home at the time)(thankfully, nobody was hurt).

When asked, Sacramento Police spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong said "Although we can't tie the shooting directly to that, we certainly believe it did not help that his name was exposed."

I know that the Sacramento Bee is scrambling for the most sensational news it can publish because it, along with countless others, is tanking hard.

But, seriously.

Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

And maybe y'all need to take two minutes and read this. Then sit down and think about that for awhile.

When you're done, why don't you spend a few more minutes thinking about how you would feel if your grandparent's house was getting shot at in the middle of the night because you tried to help make your town a safer place to live.

And then let me know if you really think it's important to post everything, just because you can.


Dawn on MDI said...

Wow. That's incredibly tough. As a former reporter, my gut says that the reporter should report what happened in the courtroom. If the witness stated his name for the record, then it is news. If the DA prefaced the testimony by saying something about it being a confidential informant, that it was brave and dangerous for the guy to testify, then that needed to be brought up as well so that people know how brave this guy was to testify in the first place. There are ways to handle situations like this and there are ways to fuck it up. It sounds like the Bee was heartless and insensitive in its coverage and that the DAs office was idiotic in dropping the ball in regards to its obligation to the informant. Crime is news, justice is news, court proceedings are news. If any cousin of the accused can sit in the gallery and glower at a witness, it does not need the local paper (not generally read by the criminal element, I might add) to let him know he's been ratted out. Word's out before the guy finishes taking the oath. Still, tone and discretion can be handled by the reporter and the editor's desk and can make some difference.

Dawn on MDI said...

Now that I have thought about it some more, re-read the Bee story, the code of ethics thing and thought some more, I still think the Bee did OK.

The Bee discussed the controversy over using confidential informants, what to do and how to handle them. Coming from the land of Whitey Bulger and the likes, we've had plenty of that kinds of stuff in the news here. Like I said before, it was the DA who outed the guy, not the Bee. Spectators in the courtroom had only to step into the hall and open their cell phones for that news to be all over town. The DA dropped the ball in a myriad of ways. It should have used this guy's information to target its investigative efforts and get someone else to roll or prove the case in some other way. It should have moved the CI's family to a safe location BEFORE he testified in open court. There are dozens of other little things that could have been done better or differently, but those are the two biggies.

For the record, I know nobody in Sacramento, nor at the Bee. I;m just a burned-out reporter/editor who now builds stuff for a living.

dolphyngyrl said...

You know the thing that irritates me most about the Bee is the way they report things that any rational person can see there'll be a consequence to their having reported it, and then you get the follow up report where the Bee sounds surprised that there was a consequence.

I know the Bee isn't the one that made the decision to put his information out there. But there's still a difference between something being said in open court, and something that's going to be published to a couple hundred thousand people. I understand that this is "news", but I think, maybe, the way in which it was reported was less than helpful.

Like the fact that they sat on the story for most of the week so they could run it on the largest circulation day of the week.

The CI testified on Monday & Tuesday. But it took an entire week for someone to come after him? The timing is what makes it seem like the story in the Bee had more to do with it than the DA's decision to put him on the stand in the first place.