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Seattle Crime calls out Seattle Times, then gets called out by Seattle Weekly

February 18, 2010

Update: After I posted this, Jonah Spengenthal-Lee of Seattle Crime contacted me and we exchanged e-mails. After you’re done reading this, please check out my update, where I’m able to present Jonah’s argument with a little more clarity.

Earlier this morning, Seattle Crime dug into The Seattle Times for posting a story about the criminal background of an assault victim that Seattle Crime said “reads as bit of a character assassination piece [sic].” Only problem is, if you read the Times piece, it’s anything but character assassination—more like valuable context to a rapidly unfolding, highly talked-about and controversial story.

Seattle Crime’s Jonah Spengenthal-Lee’s argument seems to be that because the girl—who is the victim and the accused in question—is only 15, she doesn’t deserve to be put under the harsh light of media scrutiny, even if her parents have willingly dragged her into it (note: that’s a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption on the girl’s behalf and it’s unclear whose idea it was to put her on Good Morning America). He also seems to think that the Times is suggesting that because the girl has been accused in an assault, they’re also suggesting that she had her own assault coming, a notion that I don’t see anywhere in the Times’ story.

The Seattle Weekly already fairly and effectively countered Jonah’s argument, so I won’t spend a lot of time on that, but I thought it was worth taking the context and journalistic responsiblity arguments a bit further.

I don’t exactly know what Jonah would have the Seattle Times do—qualify the whole story from the outset (“Editor’s note: Please don’t assume that because an assault victim has been herself accused in a separate assault that she somehow deserved to be assaulted”), squash the story, etc.—and he hasn’t responded to my multiple Tweets in his direction as of this post, but the story needed to be told and not publishing it would have been completely irresponsible. Let’s be clear: context matters. Why? Because people deserve to have the full picture of a person. It’s why we dig into presidential candidates’ pasts. This girl wasn’t running for president, but she has, on multiple occasions, appealed to the public for sympathy. Whether or not she’s granted that depends on the public’s view of her.

Whether or not the Seattle Times story changes anything is up to readers, but that’s exactly the point—it’s the public who’s making the decision as to whether this information matters. To sit here and act like the public can’t handle the truth or something because they may get the wrong idea is a decidedly Orwellian approach to journalism profoundly distrustful, even if the public is generally prone to hysteria and blame.

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