EDITORIAL: FROM THE PUBLISHERS
Publishing a small newspaper feels like tiptoeing through a minefield each week. We debate the smallest details to identify potential hazards before taking a step.
In the case of last week’s edition, some of you have made clear you believe we misstepped, triggering an explosion.
We’re referring to the front-page story detailing allegations of a sexual assault. We used public documents to describe what the now-18-year-old victim told investigators – that she was repeatedly raped last May in the home of the Ouray police chief as the family slept upstairs. Three men, including the chief’s stepson, have been arrested. The story sparked outrage and disbelief that something like this could happen here. One person didn’t want anyone to read the story, and stole most the newspapers from our racks in Ridgway and Ouray in an attempt to prevent the public from reading it.
It also triggered a backlash against us from some who felt like we shared too much information about the alleged violent assault. For that, we are sorry. But we need to explain why we made those tough decisions.
Our job is to communicate facts, however gruesome and objectionable, to show what is going on here in our community.
Part of our challenge is how to frame a story – which details to include or omit. We did our best to report what we could discern from a heavily redacted document – with entire sentences and paragraphs blacked out, so we don’t know the whole story.
We tried our best to include details that provided meaning and context and made clear the level of violence and harm that was reported, while leaving out details we felt were too explicit or irrelevant.
These details were disturbing. We would expect anyone who reads this account to be bothered.
As journalists, we have a duty to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent. Some of our readers have argued we missed the mark in the “minimize harm” category. We tried our best to balance the need to explain what happened with going too far. We also need to provide a foundation for understanding this important story as it moves forward through the court system.
This is a difficult thing to do. Too much detail seems gratuitous and sensational. Too little detail minimizes the victim’s report of what happened and the severity of this alleged crime.
We apologize to the victim in this case for any harm that came from our reporting. We tried to give her advance notice – and gave a copy of the affidavit to a liaison who agreed to share the public document with the victim, so she could be prepared for details to be published in the story before it was printed.
We now know that did not happen prior to publication. From now on, we commit to communicating directly with the victim, to notify her before additional articles are published as we cover this important case. We did not intend to blindside her. We are sorry.
In retrospect, we also wish we had provided information on resources and assistance for anyone who may have needed it, and an editor’s note notifying readers that the story contained disturbing details of an alleged sexual assault.
We have also consulted with resources on reporting these kinds of stories from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and continue to learn more.
These are all best practices we are adopting for future stories. We heard you, and we are committed to improving our reporting with greater awareness of the impact descriptions can have, particularly on those who have been victimized.
At the same time, we will not shy away from reporting these difficult, disturbing stories. If they get swept under the rug, nothing ever changes.
Those of us who live here might like to think it’s this quaint place where the worst thing that happens is a bear breaking into a house and eating food off the counter. But that’s not true.
Ouray County is just like everywhere else. The Switzerland of America has some dark corners hiding revolting secrets. While we don’t like inspecting them, if we don’t, we fear they will only fester and multiply in the shadows. We need to be able to convey the severity of accusations, especially when those in power are involved.
We never intended for this story to reach an international audience, but that’s what happened when a thief decided to prevent others from reading the story and stole the newspapers out of a dozen racks in Ridgway and Ouray last week. His attempts to stifle a free press only resulted in people wanting to read it more, casting a spotlight on this community none of us wanted.
Our job is to reflect the community. But when we don’t like what we see in the mirror, it’s important to change that reflection. We do that through full and honest reporting, so the community can start to address the real problem.
The raw, emotional conversations we’re having now are a start.
To answer those who question why we wrote about this alleged crime at all, our role is not to be cheerleaders. We’re not a chamber of commerce. While we try to balance hard news with stories that inspire empathy and compassion, sometimes we have to write stories like this. We don’t enjoy writing them, and it’s not, as some claim, to line our pockets. We didn’t want to wait to write about it until a jury trial, either, considering it involves the home of a public official and the severity of the allegations.
For those who accuse us of sensationalism or trying to sell papers, we want you to know we received more donations than we needed to replace the stolen newspapers, and we’ve made a contribution to the Ouray County Support & Advocacy Project and the Dolphin House, which also serves Ouray County, to help with education and support for sexual assault resources in the community.
Regardless of the thief’s motivation, trying to keep an important story from reaching the public is unacceptable. There are other, legal ways to express displeasure with our work. We aren’t afraid of printing criticism on our own opinion pages. You’ll see some of that in today’s edition.
The newspaper thief is to blame for putting this story in the national spotlight. When that spotlight fades, we will be the ones here, still serving the community.
Now, it’s time for the attention to return to the real story. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that we have a serious crime that was reported at the police chief’s house. The least of these concerns is the alleged underage drug and alcohol use, under the roof of Ouray’s top cop. The topic we should focus on is this case and the ongoing problem of sexual assault here in Ouray County.
Journalism is a practice, sometimes executed imperfectly. We pursue the best sources we can, and make well-intentioned attempts to proceed with stories carefully and ethically.
Our profession’s imperfect science isn’t an excuse for shoddy reporting – which is not what happened here. But reflection and hindsight reminds us that the pursuit of truth and understanding is a continuum, and we’re committed to improving our work in the future while shining a light on even the darkest parts of our corner of the world.
Erin McIntyre and Mike Wiggins are the publishers of the Ouray County Plaindealer. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.