Publisher's Note: Sometimes it’s best to hold the story
By Jody Reese
Its not easy deciding what news to publish and when. News outlets face this issue almost every day.
Last week, the New Hampshire Union Leader published a story with the headline, "'Hitman' hire ends in arrest."
It had all the elements of a Pam Smart-type story: Prominent attorney husband has affair, girlfriend hires hitman to eliminate wife.
There was one big problem with this tabloid story. There was no evidence of an affair.
The accused was a client of the attorney and according to partners at his law firm he had taken steps to make sure that he was never alone behind closed doors with the woman because of her unusual behavior.
Even though the Union Leader had added in an "allegedly," the story left the clear impression that an affair had taken place. So who was the source in the Union Leader story? The sole source of the Union Leader story was State Trooper Steven Rowland's affidavit based on statements from the accused's roommate.*
Union Leader news editor Ed Domaingue defended the way the story characterized the relationship between the accused and the attorney, saying the paper only summarized affidavits that supported the charges against the woman. What Domaingue didn't add was that the affidavits were only based on the accused's statements.
A day later after the initial story was published, the Union Leader substantially changed its original story online (and followed up in print) to deemphasize the accusation that there had ever been an affair and add in balanced remarks from family and a co-worker.
If Domaingue so stands by the original story then why change the online version? Another question should be why publish the story without further investigation into accusations?
To be fair to the reporting staffing staff of the Union Leader, it can be very hard to get investigators to talk about open cases. This can leave news reporting outlets with very little information. And it's unreasonable to expect these news outlets to stop reporting on crime because investigators are so miserly with information.
In addition for the need for more cooperation from law enforcement, media outlets such as the Union Leader need to be more cautious with court documents. Just because someone has claimed something doesn't mean it needs to go into the paper.
Our sister paper, the Manchester Daily Express, deals with this most days with the police news. Many times the court documents include all sorts of salacious details and our staff has to figure out how much of that information to include in the story. In one recent example the court papers reported that the accused defecated in his pants after being arrested. The Express chose not to report that.
News operations will make mistakes and should, as the Union Leader did, try and fix them. In the end if New Hampshire law enforcement made more of an effort to share what they knew and news outlets took more time in verifying claims, fewer mistakes that harm reputations would occur.
* Statement on the source of the story was clarified from an earlier version. To see an explanation of the clarification, see the publisher's note for Dec. 20.