Daily made right call on sex offender notification

Newspapers have to make tough judgment calls every day. What stories do we pursue? Who do we quote, and how? What do we leave out? Reporters and editors are faced with decisions like these on a daily basis, and they are rarely easy.
The most difficult of these decisions occur when the newspaper must balance responsibility to the community with the rights of a suspect or an individual convicted of a crime. Daily reporters and editors were faced with such a dilemma this past week.
In 1996 a national law called Megan’s Law was passed in response to the rape and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka in New Jersey by a neighbor who had raped a child before. The law requires that communities be notified when a Level III sex offender — considered most likely to re-offend — moves into the neighborhood. This law was added to an earlier Minnesota law, the 1991 Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Kids Act, requiring that sex offenders register in the cities where they live.
On Monday evening a meeting was held in the southeast Como area to notify residents that a Level III sex offender was moving into their neighborhood, close to a school. Reporter Michelle Moriarity covered the meeting. I received a phone call from Matt Cross, the managing editor, to discuss the options for publishing information about this offender.
In Oct. 1997, the Daily had its first experience with Megan’s Law. A Level III offender moved into the Cedar-Riverside/Seward neighborhood. Daily staffers covered the meeting, and in the newspaper named the offender and provided his age and the area where he would be living. The offender was also given space to write a statement explaining the circumstances around his offense and to assert that he wanted to be a good citizen and neighbor. No photo was run.
Cross told me that before the decision to publish the offender’s personal information was made, the newsroom was engaged in a heated three-hour-long debate about the law and the paper’s position on it. Several professors from the journalism school came over to the Daily afterward and provided additional information and points of discussion to reporters. This time, since there was a precedent in place, the only decision that remained was whether to run a mug shot of the offender.
Moriarity was asked to provide editors with all the information she could from the meeting so an informed decision could be made. She told me that she looked at the way the issue had been covered in 1997 for guidance and followed the format closely in her reporting, with the only difference being the possibility of a mug shot.
Cross said that he was in favor of holding the mug shot until it could be determined what the offense was. If the offender had engaged in sexual contact with juveniles, then a strong argument could be made for running the mug, since the offender had chosen to live near an elementary school.
At the Daily’s news meeting, however, editors decided to run the mug regardless. Discussion centered on the editors’ belief that it was the job of the Daily to provide as much information as possible and that it would be irresponsible to withhold a mug shot if we had one.
Cross was troubled by this decision but elected not to overrule it. He did argue to “bury” the mug — to place it on the jump page, not on the front page — and this was done. It was later determined after the meeting that the offender was indeed a pedophile, so Cross would have recommended running a mug shot.
I don’t want to give the impression that this decision was an easy one, for Cross or the other editors involved in its making. In fact, I believe that there are serious problems with laws like Megan’s law.
It’s hard to argue with a gut-level reaction to protect kids against sexual predators, and I don’t want to appear to be a friend of pedophiles. I am, however, a friend of the Bill of Rights, one provision of which protects individuals from being punished more than once for the same crime.
The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Critics of community notification laws like Megan’s law argue that such laws are a form of double jeopardy. The individual should not be subject to additional punishment at the hands of the community (at best, difficulty finding a job or a place to live; at worst, suffering some form of vigilante justice) once he or she has served appropriate time for the offense.
Additionally, some critics of Megan’s law argue that the media must remain independent from all forms of government and that includes law enforcement. In publishing identifying information about sex offenders, are we serving as an arm of the law? Daily staff grappled with this quandary a few years ago when Editor in Chief Michele Ames declined to turn over unpublished photos to the legal system in the Knutson case. The issue we faced this week has some of the same implications.
Discussions like this go back to the one that took place in the Daily’s newsroom this past week: What is the fundamental role of a newspaper? Is it to provide all the information it can? To provide services to the community, even if that means it might infringe upon rights of a convicted sex offender?
The Daily did it mostly right this time. Had there been no precedent in place to publish identifying information about the offender, I might have argued for the release of less personal information and more about where to get information about the offender so that individuals who are concerned know where to get it.
I might also have brought up double jeopardy and asked the editorial staff to think hard about the Bill of Rights’ guarantee against it. But the Daily had a precedent in place, and it was the right thing to do to follow it. Readers have an expectation that the Daily will provide them with information about Level III sex offenders, and that expectation should be met.
I would have made two minor additions to Tuesday’s story. First, it should have been clear that the offender had moved near an elementary school (the copy said “community school” which might have meant a middle or high school). Second, the information provided at the meeting included the fact that the offender’s crimes were against juvenile males from the ages of 6 to 9. This information is important because it makes a connection between the ages of children at risk and the ages of the children who would be attending the school. The article should have provided that age range.
I am even comfortable, given the precedent set last year, with the decision to run the mug shot on the jump page. Again, because an individual convicted of sexual crimes against children chose to move near an elementary school, additional information was warranted.
However, I am still troubled, as is Cross, about the editorial position regarding the fundamental role of the Daily. If it is to provide all the information possible, then the Daily is set up to fail. As I’ve noted above, we make editorial decisions every single day about what we investigate, write and publish. Those decisions invariably involve what to leave out.
And I remain concerned about the implications of laws like Megan’s law on the Bill of Rights. While courts have generally found community notification laws to be constitutional, and while the public and law enforcement support them, there is always cause for concern when a law — however well-intentioned — chips away at fundamental guarantees contained in the Bill of Rights.
It is true that individuals convicted of crimes, particularly against children, should and do give up many rights. Their punishments should be severe. But they should not be punished more than once for the same crime. Megan’s law and others like it run that risk.

Genelle Belmas welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.