It started with an anonymous note.
An e-mail from a fictitious address let me know on March 27 that North Bend Mayor Ken G. Hearing had been arrested. It didn’t take long to confirm that an arrest on suspicion of domestic violence had indeed happened. And it didn’t take much longer for the story to break.
I’ve covered mayors when they’ve gotten in trouble before. But a domestic violence case involving a public official was something new.
After consulting with some of my professional colleagues, it was clear to me that basic guidelines hadn’t changed. We wanted the facts. We wanted the police report. And we wanted to see if the mayor had been officially charged with a crime.
In general, newspapers don’t name suspects in crimes until they are charged. That means the prosecutor’s office must file an official charge against you before your arrest, and your name, goes public.
Following the arrest, we requested the police report from the sheriff’s records office, and kept in contact with the King County Prosecutor’s office regarding the charging process. And then we waited.
When press time neared last week, and no charges or full report were forthcoming, I had a choice to make. I decided to wait, and I’ve gotten a mixed response to that call. Most folks have praised me for putting integrity before a scoop. But one woman called to complain, suggesting I was going easy on the mayor.
Does Mr. Hearing’s status as a public official mean he should be held to a different standard? As mayor, he is under more scrutiny than your average citizen. Media tradition says that public figures are fair game for fair comment. But newspapers also have responsibilities to accuracy and integrity. If the facts aren’t all in, and your own standards for publication aren’t yet met, is it right to out anyone, mayor or no, for an arrest? To me, the signs urged caution.
Today, nearly two weeks after the fact, I do not have the arrest report in hand. Yet, we are running a story to present the official facts as we know them. We have a responsibility to accuracy. But we cannot sit on a story forever.
For those who were upset over our caution, consider this: Put yourself in the shoes of a suspect, or a victim. Ask yourself, were you to be arrested, but not charged with any crime, would you like to see your name in ink on a banner headline? Would you prefer to have a newspaper that covers its community in such a fashion, putting the need for a scoop over the desire to get the full facts, if at all possible? Would you trust such a paper for very long? Would you trust it to get your own story right?
As in everything we do, there is a compromise at work here. We have a responsibilities to ethics and integrity, and to our readers. Contrary to what you might believe, it’s the readership who ultimately set the tone of any paper.
A true community newspaper must always seek a balance between privacy and prurience, between sensationalism and trust. Long after this story, however it turns out, is history, I hope that will be the case at this paper.