Essex column: When an editor should get out of journalism
A few commenters over the past couple of weeks have called for my resignation, along with that of one of the Post Independent’s reporters.
They were angry that we reported surprising developments involving the Glenwood Center for the Arts and its former director, who resigned unexpectedly in early April.
Asking questions, as journalists do, about why Christina Brusig resigned, we first learned of a police investigation into the organization’s finances. This was unquestionably newsworthy.
After publishing that story, we were told that Brusig, in her personal life, had been charged with a felony in Eagle County over bad checks. This was the story that most upset some readers.
Each of these developments was independently newsworthy, though, and reporting such stories is our job. We would have reported the criminal charge even in an absence of an investigation of the organization that Brusig led, and it would be inappropriate for us to pick and choose which felony charges against local leaders we should report.
Taking criticism also is part of our job, and it’s important, as part of the process of covering our communities, for us to hear what readers are thinking. I do wish that folks would not curse our employees; our administrative assistant had the misfortune of answering a call from one detractor who was able to express his anger only in the crudest of profanities.
I stand by these news decisions and am not going to resign, but I have given thought to when an editor should quit. A couple of situations seem to clearly call for getting out of journalism:
• Letting fear of criticism influence whether to publish a story.
• Softening or withholding a story because the subject is well-liked or influential.
I’m confident that you don’t really want an editor who behaves that way.
I love journalism. I consider it a privilege to be close to a community and to tell its stories, good and bad. Both are important for people to know. In that context, I believe that failing to publish these stories would have been unethical — a violation of my profession’s principles and the PI’s community obligation.
It would have required playing favorites and being afraid to share bad news. We cannot exist that way in this profession and could do no service to the community with that mind-set.
The incident leads me to promise a couple things:
• The Post Independent will publish stories about police investigations of local institutions and leaders when we learn of them. We will follow these and publish the outcome. For example, we continue seeking to learn if anything has come of the referral to a neighboring district attorney of Democratic allegations that Garfield County Commissioner John Martin committed a crime in how he handled travel and meal expenses. (We are told the examination is not quite complete.)
• We will publish stories about local leaders — in government, the nonprofit sector or business — who are charged with crimes. I consider this doubly important when the person is paid with public money, as was the case in the stories at hand.
If such a story involves someone you know, like and respect, it’s disturbing. It can be comfortable to blame the messenger.
Some of the calmer critics of our coverage pointed a finger at Eagle County authorities, contending that the charge against Brusig was inappropriate. We have no power over that and cannot get into the business of not reporting a criminal charge even if we might think a prosecutor has erred.
No two incidents are exactly the same, but we do our best to apply the same standards to similar situations.
This brings me to our practice on when we name criminal defendants, a policy established in July 2015.
Here’s the core of the policy:
“We will name only those people charged with clearly serious or high-profile crimes whose cases we intend to follow through the legal process. To underscore: Naming a person arrested now signals our commitment to follow that case and report the outcome.
“We will continue to write about almost all felonies, but in most instances we will describe what happened without naming the people arrested. …
“At the same time, we aren’t going soft on crime. Names will still be reported in serious or otherwise high-profile cases that we believe are important or interesting enough to follow.”
The primary reason for not naming some people is that most criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains to lesser charges, and many are quietly dismissed. My experience is that both large and small news operations simply don’t have adequate personnel to root all of these out. Across the country, charges are reported but many outcomes are not.
That’s why we made a commitment to follow cases to their conclusion when we name defendants.
Readers may disagree that Brusig’s felony, to which she pleaded guilty last Monday and which will be dismissed in two years if she repays the money, was high profile. It was my judgment that it was because of her publicly visible position and the fact that she was paid with city money. That judgment won’t vary if other nonprofit directors or government leaders face criminal charges.
Randy Essex is publisher and editor of the Post Independent.