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How the Cloquet Pine Journal reports on crime, courts

"Our job is to report what’s happening in the community fairly and accurately. If at any time you have questions about our coverage or how we do things, please contact me," writes editor Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten.

Cloquet Pine Journal masthead
We are part of The Trust Project.

CLOQUET — From time to time we get questions from readers about how we approach our coverage.

I’d like to address a few points that have come up recently: coverage of crime and identifying victims.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is a guiding light to our work, and I will refer to it at a few points below.

When we cover cases moving through the courts, we do not identify people who are accused until formal charges have been filed.

There are a few exceptions, such as if the person is a public figure, but those decisions are not made on the fly – I consult with the reporter working on the story and with other Duluth Media Group editors before making a decision.

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The SPJ Code of Ethics doesn’t have a set guideline on this, but advises news organizations to “consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.”

We take great care to respect an accused person’s right to a fair trial by using words like accused and allegedly.

Along this same vein, we tend to report only on what happens at court hearings or glean information from official court documents. We avoid speculation, but will report information we can verify from official sources, such as law enforcement agencies or the county attorney’s office.

We often don’t seek interviews with victims or people who are accused of crimes, as that could jeopardize the outcome of a case. Victims, for example, are often given the opportunity to present their views in court through testimony or victim impact statements, and we report on those when we feel it’s appropriate.

A key facet of the Code of Ethics is minimizing harm.

While the SPJ doesn’t specifically say whether news organizations should identify victims, it does advise us to “use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.”

In our newsroom, we do as much as we can to avoid identifying victims. We believe the public has a right to know when a community member is accused of a sex crime, for example, but we will not include the person’s relationship to the suspected victims or details about the victims, such as age and gender.

There is often incredible detail included in criminal complaints – graphic details of crimes that would haunt any reasonable person. In cases of alleged abuse, sexual assault and homicide, for example, we often keep specific details of the suspected crime vague so as not to re-traumatize victims, family members and readers.

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This view is also based on the SPJ’s guidelines: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

We believe in being transparent about our reporting practices. Our policies and standards can be found on our website at pinejournal.com/policies-and-standards .

The Cloquet Pine Journal is also a member of The Trust Project . The Trust Project is an international initiative aimed at amplifying “journalism’s commitment to transparency, accuracy, inclusion and fairness so that the public can make informed news choices,” according to its website.

Members of The Trust Project must be transparent about the following Trust Indicators : Best practices, journalist expertise, type of work, citations and references, methods, local sources, diverse voices and actionable feedback.

Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten, Regional Editor
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

That’s why when you click on a story on our website, it will say “News Reporting” at the top of news stories, or “Opinion” at the top of this column, for example.

It’s why each of our reporters has an author page indicating who they are, what they cover and how to contact them.

It’s also why you’ll see footers at the bottom of wire stories indicating when we use content from outside our newsroom.

Our job is to report what’s happening in the community fairly and accurately. If at any time you have questions about our coverage or how we do things, please contact me at 218-720-4102 or jzvandenhouten@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTYCLOQUET
Jen Zettel-Vandenhouten is the regional editor for Duluth Media Group, overseeing the Cloquet Pine Journal and the Superior Telegram.
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