Guidelines serve the public and newspaper as well
During the last several weeks, a number of readers have contacted the Sun Advocate with questions about the newspaper's policies regarding two primary areas - letters to the editor and criminal justice system coverage.
Rather than continue to answer the inquiries on a one-to-one basis, the Sun Advocate decided that highlighting the established guidelines on the editorial page would better serve the newspaper's readership.
First, many Carbon County residents may not fully understand the scope and potential legal liabilities associated with publishing public forums like letters to the editor.
Public forums are specifically designed to provide a vehicle allowing United States citizens to publicly voice opinions about public issues.
The forums, including letters to the editor sections of newspapers, are not designed to permit disgruntled individuals with personal axes to grind to blatantly attack elected officials, law enforcement agencies, public service agencies, court judges or businesses.
As with all democratic privileges, certain responsibilities accompany the exercise of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Regulations prohibiting defamation of character and liable not only safeguard the rights of private citizens, but protect elected officials, business leaders, criminal justice system professionals and members of the public sector from falling victim to personal attacks.
In order to operate within the parameters established to safeguard the rights of all private personalities, the Sun Advocate will remain focused on screening letters to the editor and guest columns to ensure that the opinions expressed by readers address public issues rather than represent attempts to promote personal crusades.
Second, the Sun Advocate solicited input from local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys, the district court and legal counsel regarding criminal justice system coverage.
Based on the input and legal advice, the Sun Advocate developed the policies governing crime and court news coverage.
Basically, the newspaper publishes the county-wide jail bookings, accounts of law enforcement investigations into incidents impacting the general public and formal actions in criminal complaints processed through the district court.
All criminal jail bookings are printed in the Castle Valley Watch, except arrests involving alleged sex offenses. But without exception, the newspaper tracks the formal stages of all criminal complaints handled by the district court.
Factors the Sun Advocate considers in determining when to report criminal investigations include the nature of the cases, aggravated circumstances, the potential impact to the community at large and the threat to the general public.
One universally accepted tenet challenges journalists and the news media to arm the general public with information. Information arms the citizenry with an effective weapon to battle threats and protect the community.
Few people question the standard practice of newspapers to cover child pornography or sex rings, fatal shootings, homicides or attempted murders, kidnappings and armed standoffs or robberies.
Fortunately, few local law enforcement investigations involve high profile, violent and aggravated crimes. But unfortunately, frequent less dramatic incidents threaten the general welfare of communities and residents.
For example, criminal and social problems linked to illicit drug activity are mounting not only across the state and nation, but in Carbon County.
Due to the potentially far-reaching negative impacts of the related crimes, the Sun Advocate reports investigations into suspected manufacturing or distributing of a controlled substance cases.
In addition, subjects occupying positions of trust in the community accused of committing sex crimes face prosecution on enhanced charges under the state's criminal statutes. Newspapers traditionally carry specific accounts of the higher profile criminal complaints.
Fortunately, the county attorney's office has filed relatively few sexual abuse, rape and/or sodomy cases against alleged perpetrators occupying positions of trust and authority in the local community.
Unfortunately, the local prosecutor's office has filed a significant number of criminal complaints after screening law enforcement investigations into alleged sexual abuse incidents involving domestic situations.
All crimes are committed against an individual victim, victims or society in general. But the nature and aggravated circumstances involved in higher profile crimes pose a greater risk to the community at large.
The vast majority of credible newspapers, including the Sun Advocate, sidestep sensationalism by providing coverage of the more aggravated, higher profile criminal.