January 9, 2005 in Opinion

Readers’ right to know drives news report

Steve Smith The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokesman- Review finds itself in a twist with police departments in North Idaho.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department and the Coeur d’Alene Police Department are angry that the newspaper, in editions of Jan. 5, named the two sheriff’s deputies involved in a fatal shooting in Hayden late last year.

In a Jan. 5 press release picked up by news outlets in the area, Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said his department “is very disappointed in the lack of courtesy and respect that The Spokesman-Review has shown to the deputies involved in last week’s shooting incident.” Sheriff Watson said the department wanted the names withheld until official investigations into the shooting are complete.

Sheriff Watson’s concern for his deputies’ well-being and the integrity of the Idaho State Police investigation is as commendable as it is predictable. Police agencies are in the business of keeping investigative information close until they have developed all of the facts necessary to build a case. That is a fundamental value in law enforcement.

But newspapers are governed by a different set of values. Our values are built around the most basic principle of American journalism – that the press serves as a watchdog of government. Further, our values begin with the public’s right to know, not the public’s right to wait for a press release. At The Spokesman-Review, our internal news protocol begins with the statement “We tell people what we know when we know it.”

Here are the essentials of the shooting incident:

Shortly after midnight on Dec. 28, sheriff’s deputies confronted and handcuffed a hit-and-run suspect, Michael Madonna, at Madonna’s home in Hayden. Coeur d’Alene Officer Michael Kralicek arrived on the scene, in part as backup but also because he was investigating a potentially related theft.

Under circumstances yet to be clarified, Madonna broke free even though handcuffed, fled into his house, grabbed a gun and apparently fired two shots at police.

In returning fire, deputies Justin Bangs and Kevin Smart struck and killed Madonna. In the exchange, again under circumstances yet to be made clear, Officer Kralicek was struck in the neck and jaw, suffering near-fatal wounds. He remains in very critical condition in a Seattle hospital.

Press reports of the incident didn’t go much beyond that until our story on Jan. 5 named the deputies, also noting that deputy Bangs was involved in a fatal shooting June 18 in Rathdrum. Until our report, North Idaho citizens would not have known that Deputy Bangs, on the force for about one year, had been involved in two fatal shootings in less than six months.

Is that a fact citizens should know now? Or should they wait until an official investigation is complete, weeks or maybe months from now?

In our business, waiting is not an option. In our view it is better to give some readers more information than they want than to withhold information other readers believe they need as engaged citizens. Law enforcement officers are granted discretion to make life-and-death decisions. It is imperative that they be accountable for those decisions, not just within the confidential framework of an internal investigation, but in the light of day where the citizens they serve can make their own judgments.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the official investigation will not be complete and thorough. And, given the circumstances as we currently know them, it’s probable that officials will rule the shooting justified. (Deputy Bangs’ actions in the June 18 incident were upheld through subsequent investigation.)

But that outcome is not compromised, the quality of the investigation not harmed by a newspaper doing its job. And, as has happened time and again here and elsewhere, it’s always possible the newspaper will elicit information from readers or draw conclusions of its own that add to or even contradict results of an official investigation. That’s the watchdog function at work.

Sheriff Watson argues the deputies’ names should have been withheld to protect them from further emotional trauma. Journalists can understand and sympathize with the pain they must undoubtedly feel. But we must weigh their trauma against our watchdog and right-to-know values. In our view, with their identities already known to many in the community, already known to their colleagues, already known to the families of Madonna and Officer Kralicek, the additional trauma posed by publication in our newspaper is outweighed by the public’s right to know now, as best we can report it, what transpired that morning in Hayden and June 18 in Rathdrum.

Our position in this case was complicated by a couple of other factors.

First, we knew the officers’ identities within hours of the shooting. But we withheld them from readers, inappropriately, for several days. The reporter responsible has been disciplined.

Second, our competitor in Coeur d’Alene has chosen a different approach.

In a Coeur d’Alene Press story on Thursday, managing editor Mike Patrick said “We didn’t publish the names because we respect the investigative process. We have never, ever had any problem with the sheriff’s office or other law enforcement agency in full disclosure of facts after an investigation is complete. That’s our policy and we’re going to stick to it.”

That statement will astound many editors who will see it as an abrogation of one of our institution’s fundamental principles.

But seizing on the Press’s policy as evidence that The Spokesman-Review is uncaring of the North Idaho community, the sheriff’s department and Coeur d’Alene Police Department apparently have decided they no longer will talk to our reporters, will not return our calls or provide us with public safety information.

They certainly can adopt such a stance. But hunkering down behind closed walls, denying our readers critical law enforcement information, equating ethical journalism with community insensitivity is, at best, shortsighted.

And it won’t change the fact that our obligation is to inform our citizen/readers, not make friends at the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department.


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