Debating when to publish public documents

Chronicle crime reporter Whitney Bermes got into a discussion this morning with Missoulian crime reporter Kathryn Haake over documents with stories online.

Particularly, Bermes was surprised that the Missoulian published the ticket along with the affidavit in the case of a 46-year-old Butte man accused of driving drunk the wrong way for 20 miles on Interstate 90.

The ticket, as opposed to the affidavit, contains information such as the man’s exact date of birth, his driver’s license number and his home address.

The full Twitter exchange is in the Storify embedded below (and linked here).

I can understand the differences in choices about publishing information online. The Chronicle chooses not to publish the ticket because these people are merely accused of crimes and because the ticket contains such personally identifying information. Haake made clear that the Missoulian publishes the ticket because “it’s public record.” That’s a fair difference of journalistic opinion. If a little harsh. (Do they publish documents in rape cases too? Because those documents are also public.)

What stood out from the conversation most to me was Haake’s response to Whitney’s initial question:

That shows a reporter too ready to jump to the conclusion that a person is guilty before they’ve had a crack at due process. That makes me uncomfortable.

I also found great irony in the difference in opinion between a reporter at this branch of a Lee Enterprises paper and the editor at another one.

On March 28, the Billings Gazette earned the ire of media critics when Jim Romenesko linked to a Feb. 23 editor’s column titled “The Hidden Freedom of the Press.”

In it, editor Darrell Ehrlick explains why the paper chose not to run a copy of state Sen. Jason Priest’s affidavit online when he was accused of assault. He said, apart from the case involving children, that the documents, “if true, paint a picture that is deeply troubling.”

More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it’s up to the courts to decide Priest’s innocence or guilt.

This is a discussion we have had concerning mugshots here at the BDC a while back. We decided that the en masse publishing of photographs of people only accused of crimes was not something we wanted to do because those photos can imply guilt. You’ll of course note that we do publish photos of people in court when we write stories about their cases, though. Clearly, there is disagreement among Montana papers over handling mugshots too.