The story behind the story

A lot of things go into a news story.  A lot of decisions are made, often with little time to make them, that determine whether an event or an issue really is a story, what the important elements of the story are, and who are the players.

Throw in the possible involvement of a well-known person in a violent crime and the pressure to make a proper editorial decision is ratcheted up.  Add in the fact that no charges have been filed and the only information is in a police report.

Is it news or is it gossip?  Is the police complaint a legitimate crime or someone seeking revenge?

And then as time goes by, new issues come up involving the well-known person that seemingly are not connected to the alleged crime — or are they?

You know by now that we’re talking about Michael Dixon, the now-departed University of Missouri basketball player .  He denies doing anything wrong.  Two police reports from two women say something different.  The University of Missouri athletic department had been maintaining all along that he had been suspended from the team for violating team rules, a phrase that covers everything from cutting a class (we suppose) to—-well, who knows?  The university cites student privacy laws as a reason for not getting more specific. And the university always errs on the side of caution when quizzed about what sin the student-athlete committed that consigns him to suspension.

So let’s assume you are the editor.  You have allegations and no charges against a well-known person in your comunity.  The well-known person already is under scrutiny, apparently for unrelated issues that nobody with authority to speak will clarify or say whether they are connected with the allegations.  The person involved certainly isn’t going to talk to you.

This is serious, serious stuff.  There are libel and slander laws.  If you go with the allegations and they turn out not to be true, the well-known person might cost you an unbearable amount of money in legal fees to begin with and more if they convince a court your reporting damaged their standing in the community.

When do you run the story?  DO you run the story?  And if you run it, what do you report as fact; what do you report as truth?

The editor of one of the newspapers in Columbia wrote a piece that was published this weekend explaining the process he and his staff went through in their handling of the story.  It’s an exploration of a decision-making system that is not perfect, cannot be reduced to a formula, and is subject to second-guessing.   We thought it to be an interesting story behind a story that displays an important part of the process that readers and listeners never see or hear when they pick up the paper or turn on the radio.

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