Paul Rilling: The Star and its Devens comparison
Aug 29, 2013 | 3493 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In August, The Star ran three stories about how Massachusetts and towns around the former Fort Devens faced the problems of the base closing. There were two stories by Mary Jo Shafer, a former Star staff writer, and a comparative story about McClellan by Debra Flax (Aug. 18, 1A, 9A, 1D). What happened to Devens was presented as a development success that might have lessons for McClellan. There was a graphic on Page 1 comparing the two forts.

Seven years after Fort Devens closed, there are 3,200 jobs at Devens and 2,750 residents living there. This compares to 3,000 jobs and a population of 900 at McClellan. It is hard to see Devens as a model for McClellan. As the article stated, “Both are former Army posts that were closed in the 1990s and both are going through a redevelopment process. The similarities seem to end there, however.” Devens closed four years earlier than McClellan. McClellan has twice as much land. Devens’ closeness to Boston is a major factor in its success.

The largest differences are money and state support. MassDevelopment, a public/private organization, is responsible for Devens. It owns the land, provides the money and recruits companies. MassDevelopment has 40 staff members in Devens. The agency was authorized by the state, which provided some funds. It is hard to imagine Alabama taking a similar approach.

Stress important info

The article “Council approves Johnson city manager contract,” by Paige Rentz, included two newsworthy items, the approval of the contract for a new Anniston city manager, carried properly in the first two paragraphs, and the terms of the contract, which were not given until the 11th paragraph. That information should have been higher in the story. It would have been helpful to readers if the new contract was compared with the salary and benefits of the outgoing city manager (Aug. 21, 1A).

Star’s crime coverage

I raised several questions about The Star’s crime reporting to Managing Editor Ben Cunningham. My concerns were: Is The Star using correct wording to report arrests, and is it fair to publish the names and often photos of persons who have been arrested with details of their alleged crimes before they are formally charged with the crimes?

Such publication damages their reputations, although less than half of arrests nationwide result in trials for the crimes for which they were arrested. Is it correct for The Star to refer to the grounds for arrests as “charges?” The way the criminal justice system works is that persons suspected of crimes may be arrested. The district attorney then decides whether to formally charge them with crimes. In cases when a person is arrested with a warrant, however, a judge has already determined that there is “probable cause” to believe that the person arrested committed the crime. As one widely used journalism textbook puts it, “An arrest is just that. It does not mean that the person has been charged with a crime. Charges are brought by the district attorney …” (Newswriting and reporting by Melvin Mencher, 10th edition, p. 199).

Cunningham answered via email, “Criminal law is the government’s way to protect lives and property. Law enforcement agencies, meanwhile, use force to provide that protection, limiting the freedom of those suspected of crimes, seizing their property and in extreme cases employing deadly force. People accused of crimes can be embarrassed or face hardships when that information is disseminated, but it is important for the public to know when the government is using such force, against whom and on what grounds…

“We get information on most of the arrests we cover from our daily collection of reports from law enforcement agencies. The reports identify those accused, the basic circumstances of their arrests and the crime or crimes police believe they have committed — these are marked on the reports in fields marked ‘charge’ … When possible, we attempt to speak with those accused of crimes or their attorneys. Because the social stigma associated with charges of sexual misconduct are more extreme than it is for other crimes, we routinely refrain from publishing the identities of those accused of such crimes unless they plead guilty or are convicted … We do not publish the names of victims of sex crimes …”

The Star is not alone in using reports like, “Police Thursday arrested so-and-so charging them with armed robbery.” Many papers do so; others do not; some refer to “on suspicion of” or “in connection with the investigation of.” The Star sometimes does use similar wording. Thursday’s Star carried a story reporting that “Anniston police arrested two teens in connection with an armed robbery ...” My suggestion that The Star should only use the names of those arrested when they already have warrants or when they are officially charged with a crime is a minority view in journalism, but I believe it would be more fair. The arrest report connecting his or her name with crime details may be the only publicity the suspect receives. The Star does not consistently follow up on the disposition of cases unless there are trials in court.

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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