One of the central functions of journalism is to report on issues of public interest and knowledge. That “function” got a real test last week amidst the announcement of a gruesome Craigslist murder plot in Ohio’s Noble County.
The crime involved two unnamed male suspects who were arrested in the murder of one unnamed victim and another unnamed victim who was shot in the arm while escaping.
Who is who
Unfortunately, most of these people are still unnamed and it’s unclear when and to what extent their names may be provided. The judge handling the case issued a gag order Friday morning, mandating that local officials not comment any further on the case.
There are times when retaining public information — at least for a reasonable amount of time — can be justified for the good of the public and by law. But there are other times when the public has the right to know, and it’s the legal requirement of the officials to share those public records.
I have no doubt that some of what was retained in this case was done so unlawfully. The name of the juvenile suspect, for example, should have been released according to language found in Ohio’s Sunshine Laws.
Each news organization makes its own decision about whether to print a juvenile’s name, depending on the type of crime and its severity. When a juvenile is wanted in connection for murder, I think that qualities for being severe enough to be printed.
Benjamin Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch,wrote an excellent column about this same issue.
He writes, “News organizations typically encounter these illegal ‘policies’ in small towns and less-populated counties. That probably stems from the fact that they deal with fewer of these types of crimes.
“It also could have something to do with the close-knit feeling in these places. When everyone knows everyone, you can understand why some would want to keep dirty laundry out of the town square.”
But, as he rightfully states, the law “doesn’t distinguish between big city and small town. Disclosure and transparency are required — and for good reason.”
That reason could be yours or my protection, the knowledge of knowing if and where a criminal is staying, what is going on and who is involved.
Because so much was withheld, news organizations across the state were scrambling to come up with what they could on their own. It meant turning to friends and relatives of the suspects, as well as the victims, to even get their names.
Then, there are the stories behind the unnamed — like the victims’ families and the tragedy this has brought.
As a writer for a farm publication, I don’t deal with public records issues quite as often as some of these major metropolitan newspapers.
In that manner, I’m a little like the small-town communities Marrison talks about — I don’t have the public records knowledge that someone would have if they dealt with these things on a regular basis.
But at the same time, I can’t use that as my excuse. As a reporter of news, I need to know the public records laws, or at least know where to turn if I am unsure. My readers are entitled to know issues of public occurrence, especially those that may impact their own safety and well-being.
Where to turn
If you’re unsure about the state’s public records policies, the No. 1 resource is the Ohio Attorney General’s Yellowbook. I’ve had a copy on my desk for the last four years. Even if you do know the law on public records, it’s good to have this handy for review.
Also, consider attending a local public records training event when one is held near your community. I attended one in 2008 and the experience was rewarding.