Journalistic Duties from Newtown to Los Angeles

Reporters do it all the time.  Exclude relevant and pertinent information from their reports. Unilaterally decide when not to honor journalists’ “people’s right to know” mantra.

I did it at least once when I worked in the newspaper business. The cop beat reporter at the Pasadena, California, Star News where I was city editor had learned a detail in an especially grisly murder that he was concerned would imperil the life of someone who knew the victim if he included it in his story.

Not even a close call, so far as I was concerned. He left it out.

Newtown Bee reporter John Voket left out not just a detail in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, but a day full of conversations among students’ families; city, school and law enforcement officials, and members of the clergy.

Voket was in the Newtown firehouse with parents who were united with their children who had not been harmed and with those whose children had been killed.

Voket is quoted in this week’s New Yorker magazine as saying his moral obligation to not write about those conversations superseded his journalistic duty to write about them.

Reading about Voket’s decision reminded me not about the omitted information in the Pasadena murder story, but about my role as information officer and media liaison for the Los Angeles Superior Court where I worked after leaving the Pasadena newspaper.

Serving in that capacity was almost a role reversal from working as a journalist. Although it took a couple of years for the hundreds of judges with the Los Angeles court to trust me — most initially considered me the enemy since I had been a member of the feared and hated news media — eventually most did.

Consequently, I had daily access to confidential information, documents, judges’ chambers and conversations that stayed with me. Never in all of my years with the court did I give a tip, preferential treatment or sealed documents to any member of the media. Never did I pass on to anyone in the media anything I discussed with any judge without the judge knowing and saying it was OK. I didn’t even tell judges what I discussed with other judges in private conversations.

I stuck with that commitment until six years after I left the court. That’s when I wrote Anatomy of a Trial.  My rationale for including behind-the-scenes conversations at the court was that a greater good would be served by showing the long-term impact media coverage of the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial had on the judiciary and on public perception.

So, I empathize with John Voket and will understand if he ever decides to write about what had to be heart-rending and gut-wrenching  conversations in one of the most tragic episodes in this country’s history.


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