Why and how we report on the courts.

April 17, 2015

The News Room. A blog by Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.

In this day and age of social media, it’s easier than ever for readers of the news media to interact. This often brings up questions about what we do, why we do it and/or the verbiage we use.

Beginning today, I am going to start addressing some of those issues.

I would like to begin by addressing  the topic of why Mason County Press posts court news and why we post mugshots of certain individuals.

It is the mission of Mason County Press to provide news and information with quality, integrity, accuracy and fairness.

We believe that as journalists it is our obligation to be the eyes and ears for the community. One of those areas is to report on criminal activity and those who violate or allegedly violate the law. We do this for the protection of the public and also for the protection of the accused.

First, let’s discuss arraignments. Every Friday we post the arraignments that occur in 79th District Court. The information comes directly from the court and is information available to anyone under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). What you see posted is exactly taken from the data provided to us by the court, including the defendant’s name, age, address and charges. We also include the time and date of arrest, the arresting agency, the next scheduled court appearance of the defendant and his/her bond amount.

This information is posted as a matter of record based on the time and date of posting. Often a person’s final outcome in court changes from the original charges (see sentencings below). As a matter of policy and integrity, we do not go back and change the original information because the final outcome of the case has developed differently. Changing that information would be like a newspaper asking all its readers to bring back their newspapers and act like the original occurrence never happened.

Sometimes a person will contact us and state that they were not arrested. It is often mistaken that arrest means that a person was detained by police. That is not always the case. If a person appears in front of the magistrate and is arraigned, they have been arrested.

We also post the mugshots of all those who have been arraigned on felony charges. These mugshots come from the Mason County Sheriff’s Office and again, are available to anyone through FOIA. We believe the public has the right to know who in our community has been accused of committing a felony.     

Posting the names of those arraigned also protects the defendants themselves. Can you imagine living in a society where someone is arrested by law enforcement and detained without the knowledge of the general public? This happens throughout the world. Would you want to live in that society?

Next, let’s talk about our coverage of the courts.

Most 51st Circuit Court criminal hearings take place on Tuesday afternoons. These hearings can range from plea agreements to sentencings. Criminal court proceedings are open to the public. We try to have a reporter in the courtroom every week. Special permission forms are filled out allowing us to use electronic equipment and to record the proceedings. The judge is allowed to set the guidelines on who or what can be photographed or recorded. Typically, the only restriction is to not photograph or talk to members of the jury during a trial.

Some hearings we consider worthy of individual stories. We don’t always report on every one. It’s basically a judgement call by the reporter at the courtroom. However, whether we write a detailed story or a brief, we will always post the sentencings either on Tuesdays or Fridays.

This also holds true for district court sentencings. This information is supplied to us by the court and we do not usually cover district court sentencings. However, there may be times when we cover a preliminary examination (also known as a probable cause hearing). This is typically in the case of a felony. The hearing is an opportunity for the prosecution to prove to the district court judge that there is enough evidence to bind the issue over to circuit court. It is typical for most defendants to waive this particular hearing.

Our court systems operate with the belief that all defendants are innocent unless proven guilty. We as journalists also hold to this and vow to report on each case as objectively as we can with the information that is provided to us. There is always two sides to every story and it is our job to tell those two sides, and not make judgement. That is what the lawyers and judges get paid to do.

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