Did the Elkhart Truth live up to its own standards when reporting on the Elkhart 4?
An editorial appearing in the August 31, 2013 online edition of the Elkhart Truth stressed the importance of quality local news. The editorial entitled “Local News Matters in the Internet Age” raises concerns about news consumption in a world that has become dominated by social networks, blogs and Tweets. The editorial says that the Elkhart Truth is “focused on the lives of people who live and work here (Elkhart), not on the lives of celebrities who might be twerking”. The editorial continues stating “Social media hasn’t replaced a need for watchdog journalism . . . we need journalists and editors to help us do that”. The editorial calls celebrity dominated journalism and opinionated blogs and tweets on the Internet the “desserts” of the news business. The editorial claims that people love desserts, but too much dessert does not support a balanced (news) diet. The editorial argues that the hard hitting reports that “people need to know” are the ‘vegetables’ of the news business. According to the editorial these ‘vegetables’ are provided by the quality of reporting at the Elkhart Truth. The paper claims that “tracking how tax dollars are spent in this community is important. What our mayors, commissioners and city council members do matters to all of us.” According to the Elkhart Truth they are the ones ensure that this is done. The editorial closes by stating “It may seem that sometimes we’re telling you to eat your vegetables when what you really want is dessert. We won’t apologize. A healthy community needs a good serving of vegetables.”
This is rational well – written argument and I agree with many of the writers views on the current state of news production . . . even though I am obviously the “person with an agenda” who runs a blog. The only problem with this opinion is that I don’t believe that the Elkhart Truth is really living up to the standards it sets for itself in this editorial.
Over the past few weeks I have written two articles on the case of the Elkhart 4 (Curtis Hill Just Spent 2.5 Million. On What? and How Would Canada Deal With The Elkhart 4?). Here is a quick synopsis of the case. In October 2012 five boys and men aged 16 – 21 broke into a house in the middle of the afternoon believing the house was empty. The owner of the house was sleeping at the time of the break in and was awoken by the noise of the burglary. The owner shot his gun killing the 21-year-old burglar and wounding one of the 16 year olds. Curtis Hill the prosecutor for Elkhart County charged the 4 surviving burglars with the murder of the 21 year old under the felony murder statute. One boy plead guilty in November 2012 and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The other three were found guilty at a trial in August 2013 and will be sentenced late next week. The sentences given out next week according to Indiana law will be between 45 and 65 years in state prison.
As you can imagine this case has generated a lot of media attention and the Elkhart Truth has followed this case from the beginning. I have read extensively the articles available from the Elkhart Truth on this case as I have blogged about it. The community is divided between those who say the law needs to be enforced and those who question the charge of murder against these boys and men when they had no intent to kill and did not shoot the gun.
The Elkhart Truth has done what all media outlets do when covering a big juicy murder case . . . it has reported on the human drama. Articles detail who said what during court sessions, and interviews with the family members of the accused. All of it is great stuff . . . . exactly what the public likes to read about in the big scandalous murder trial . . . The Elkhart Truth reported the sensational story . . . the so called ‘dessert’ But in this case where is the so called watchdog journalism the newspaper claims it delivers?
On at least four different occasions (Nov. 18, 2012, Apr. 3, 2013, Aug. 9, 2013, Sept. 2 2013) the Elkhart Truth reported on protests in the community over Curtis Hill’s decision to charge using the felony murder law. In these reports there was the standard brief paragraph detailing the felony murder law “Under Indiana law, if someone dies during the commission of a felony, everyone committing the felony can be charged with murder, even if it’s a conspirator who dies.” The articles then continued to discuss the protest by sharing interviews with protesters, often relatives of the accused, on their concerns with the felony murder law. There were no interviews with legal scholars or experts discussing the felony murder law. So the debate was framed by a short paragraph from the law and views on the law expressed by people who are not experts in the law. The end product is an article about a protest over a law without providing readers with a context of the law.
What the journalists and the Elkhart Truth did not do was the back-story. Where is the article discussing with lawyers the pros and cons of the felony murder law? Where are the interviews with legal scholars on how the law is implemented in Indiana? Where are the articles discussing the pros and cons of the removal of the ‘intent to kill’ idea when convicting someone charged with felony murder? Where is the interview with Curtis Hill (an elected official the paper claims to hold to account) having him explain his decision to move forward with these charges, especially in the case of the 3 juveniles? Where is the discussion on juvenile justice issues that this case brings up (even though being ignored by many)? Where is the discussion on mandatory minimum sentences and the costs long prison sentences will have not only on the convicted but also on the Indiana taxpayers? Where are the articles on the effectiveness or failures of prisons? These are all important questions, and there are many more I have not mentioned. I know I have strong opinions on the answers to these questions, but so do people who oppose my views who also have strong opinions they can articulate. Where is the balanced piece of writing that allows experts with credentials on both sides to explain their view thus providing the public with opinions and facts they can use as they make an informed decision about this case that has grabbed the attention of the community.
I wonder how many murder trials in Elkhart County have had 3 protests in support of the accused before the trial? I don’t suspect many. I suspect that most people would not want to be associated with a murder suspect and yet there are over 1000 names on an online petition (signed by many Elkhart residents) supporting these accused. These protests and petitions demonstrate that there is a genuine interest in the legal issues this trial examined. Is it not the job of the local media to place these issues into a context? The Elkhart Truth claims to provide the so called ‘vegetables’ to balance the ‘desserts’ giving the public a balance of news. Why did they no do that in this case? This is trial that will be studied for years to come by academics, journalists and documentary makers (already happening). The Elkhart Truth’s reporting on this trial will be examined closely in the future. It is a record of reporting that is truly limited in scope and depth. For the most part we the people develop our understanding of the legal system from how the media reports on it. If the media only reports the sensational details and not the back-story our views of the justice system will be limited.
I am not suggesting that the Elkhart Truth not report the day-to-day events at the trial or have the interview with parents, victims and witnesses. This is the stuff that people want to hear, the tabloid sensationalism that the newspaper readers want to read. I agree with the Elkhart Truth editorial that people want the desserts and this is what this newspaper gave them in this case. The problem is that the Elkhart Truth left out the vegetables which the editorial promised it would deliver. These are not my standards, they are the standards set out by them. There is limited evidence of “watchdog journalism” in the way the Elkhart Truth reported on this case, but the August 31 2013 editorial clearly stated that ‘watchdog journalism’ was a very important aspect of the publishing of this paper.
Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I have very strong views on the specifics of this case, but more than that I have strong views on the justice system itself. I see millions of lives being lived in a failed prison system costing the taxpayers billions of dollars yearly. I see newspapers and TV shows spending time and money sensationalising every small detail of the ‘next big trial’ without spending the time giving their readers/viewers the important background on all the issues that surround decisions made by those in positions of authority. But I also believe that over the next decade ever growing government deficits, new research and court rulings on juvenile issues, and success stories from legal systems outside the USA, will force the huge and cumbersome legal system to change. As this happens we need the population to have a working understanding of the system and the problems it is facing, not an explicit knowledge of the intimate details of this weeks sensationalised trial. No matter your view on the result of the trial of the Elkhart 4, I encourage you to ask ‘Did the Elkhart Truth live up to standards it laid out for itself in the August 31 2013 editorial.’ I for one think no.
Finally to be fair . . . I have found two editorials, which express an opinion on this case. The first published by the newspapers on October 14, 2012 congratulated the authorities on their swift handling of this case. The second published November 11, 2012 and written by a private citizen expressed concern with the way Curtis Hill charged these boys. Although nice to see opinions, these editorials did not provide any of the necessary background information I believe was so necessary to provide a context for the case of the Elkhart 4.
A blog detailing many of the small details of the investigation and trial — I do commend the paper for including links to some court documents and primary sources.
Protests for the Charges to Be Reduced
Individual Editorial saying the law is wrong. November 11, 2012
TRUTH Editorial – October 14, 2012 – Praising the investigation