Our view: To report not or not report ...

August 8, 2013 10:19:04 AM



Robert Smith Jr. was arrested Friday. We did not report it until today's edition, not because we didn't know the story, but because we were conflicted about what to do with it. 


Smith was arrested for a misdemeanor DUI. In most cases, The Dispatch does not report arrests for misdemeanor charges. Sadly, such arrests have become what old-time newspaper reporters use to refer to as "man bites dog" stories, events so commonplace as to fall short of being "news." 


There are exceptions, however. Often, what wouldn't qualify as news if it involved a regular citizen reaches that threshold when the news involves a public figure such as an elected official, a celebrity or someone who is so well-known in the community that they have become a household name. 


Robert Smith Jr. does not fit any of that criteria. Why, then, did we choose to report his misdemeanor arrest? 


Robert Smith Jr. is the son of Columbus Mayor Robert Smith. Ultimately, that single fact elevated his DUI arrest to something we felt compelled to report. 


But we didn't arrive at that decision without a fair amount of debate. 


If the arrest is news, we had to answer the question, "Why is the misdemeanor arrest of the mayor's son any different than the misdemeanor arrest of a factory worker or truck driver?" 


Ultimately, it came down to a matter of perception. As mayor, Robert Smith is in a position of power. Now in his second full term in that position, he has demonstrated that he is not shy about exercising that power broadly. His influence is felt in every city department, including the police department. 


We take no perverse pleasure in noting that Robert Smith Jr., is one of five of the mayor's children to be arrested, some on felony charges. Those felony arrests have been dutifully reported, much as any other felony arrests. While there may be some who will say that such criminal behavior is a direct reflection on the mayor's performance as a father, most parents are careful not to make that judgment. Or, at least, they should be. When children become of age, they own their choices and the consequences that follow. 


But on another level, the arrests do create a situation where the mayor could be tempted to be compromised. When a child is in trouble, a parent will do almost anything within his power to help them, to mitigate damage, if at all possible. A factory worker's influence in these cases is limited. A mayor's influence is greater, which creates the potential for an abuse of power. 


There is, at least among the mayor's detractors, a fear that the mayor could use his influence in a way that perverts justice.  


To some people, if we had chosen not to report the arrest of the mayor's son, it would suggest that The Dispatch is complicit in a "cover-up." 


On the other hand, if we had chosen to report the arrest, it would be perceived by some as merely an attempt to embarrass a mayor whose decisions we have often questioned. 


Damned if we do. Damned if we don't. 


There is one other component that influenced our decision, although it is the least important factor. 


The Dispatch operates in a competitive market, which means we are judged not only by what we do, but by how we perform when compared to other local media. 


When another media outlet reports something that we do not report, it could be viewed as an instance where we were beaten on a story, or worse, that we willfully ignored the story. 


While we acknowledge that there are instances where we have been "beaten" on a news story, we categorically deny any charge that we willfully ignore legitimate news. 


There is another important consideration. While there are many media outlets, each has its own standards that govern what it does or does not report. We are not responsible for the standards of other media outlets. We are responsible for meeting our own standards. Sometimes we choose not to report a story that other media have reported because of that difference in standards. 


At the Dispatch, we believe our reporting should be accurate and thorough. We are not in the business of innuendo or gossip. Above all else, we strive to be fair. 


After some deliberation, we concluded that the arrest of Robert Smith Jr., met our standards. It is news.  


How big that news is and what it means, we leave to the readers' judgment.