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Updated and debated: Seattle Crime vs. Seattle Times

February 23, 2010

After my Seattle Crime/Seattle Times post last week, I got an e-mail from Jonah Spengenthal-Lee, the man who runs Seattle Crime and who posted about what he thought was a mistake by the Seattle Times’ in posting a story about a 15-year-old assault victim’s criminal history. We had a nice, long discussion about the ethical implications of the Times story and while I still disagree with Jonah’s assessment of the situation, I have been persuaded that it’s not as ethically open-and-shut as I had originally contended.

Jonah and I agreed to speak off the record, so I won’t republish our exchange in its entirety (it’s also insanely long and you’ve probably already had the same argument with someone else anyway) but I did want to clarify Jonah’s argument, which I didn’t completely understand originally. Here’s the gist of it:

Ultimately, this girl’s a victim. What we should be talking about is what happened on the tape and what led up to what happened on the tape. Her mugging a woman in Edmonds and attacking a security guard in South Seattle provides context about her past behavior, yes, but not in a way that I believe applies to this case. If she’d been accused of robbing one of the teens that robbed/assaulted her, that’d be different. But I don’t think it adds anything to the discussion of A) whether or not this girl should be able to sue for negligence or whatever and B) whether criminal conduct occurred in the bus tunnel. […]

I think the focus of this debate has rapidly shifted away from the responsibility of the adults involved…and I don’t think this has gotten us anywhere. In fact, I think it’s actually distracted from the actual issue at hand. […] I think [the original story] started a dialogue about whether or not bystanders have a duty to intervene in [assaults]. Unfortunately, that totally worthwhile conversation has abruptly come to an end, and all anyone wants to talk about is whether this girl’s a thug or not.

Because of that and because Jonah “still think[s] you’re putting too much of the responsibility for this media circus on the shoulders of a 15-year-old” (also quoted from e-mail), he contends that The Seattle Times was wrong to publish a story about the girl’s criminal history.

Just so we’re perfectly clear, my argument has two points:

  1. On a legal basis: The girl has (seemingly) voluntarily thrust herself into the public spotlight, making her name and criminal history “fair game.”
  2. On an ethical basis: The media has a responsibility to shape a greater conversation. Stories aren’t one-and-done informational chunks, or at least they shouldn’t be. A news source is the narrative of a community and what happened yesterday and what happens today affects the outcome of tomorrow.

That said, there are still a couple things on the table worth debating:

  1. Does the girl’s age make her criminal history a no-go, despite her appearing on TV/in public? (We don’t know if it was her choice and probably won’t ever know.)
  2. Now that The Seattle Times has made the girl’s criminal record public, do they have a responsibility to keep steering the conversation?

On the second point, which I came to only after debating with Jonah (not to downplay the first point): I don’t think there’s any hard, fast rule to this, except to say that news orgs need to start acting like part of their communities. If I were the Times, I’d have followed up the criminal history story with an editorial, regular involvement in comment threads, posts to Twitter, Facebook, etc.—basically I’d explain my stance on why the story was run and do my best to steer the conversation toward whatever issues I thought were paramount. Jonah said the Times “fucked up” in its decision to run the story—I think if there’s any fuck-up to be had, it’s that The Seattle Times really hasn’t contributed much to the conversation since posting the story (which leaves us all to guess as to what their motivations were for posting it).

At this point, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer as to what’s right or wrong; it’s just going to come down to a matter of what your philosophy is. I would be curious to hear The Seattle Times’ take on this debate, though, and if I hear anything back from them (that they’re willing to let me publish) I’ll post it here.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

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