Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » What would you add to ethics board discussion about civil court coverage?


Most people think a newspaper is going to do what it wants no matter what anyone says, a member of the Advocate's ethics board told me this week.

Jim Story, personnel director of the Calhoun County school district, is one of two outside members of our ethics board. In the six months he's volunteered to be on the newspaper board, he said, his eyes have been opened to how much we discuss and deliberate the difficult decisions we face in the daily production of a newspaper and website.

He said he's learned we do listen to the community and try to do what's best, although he adds that sometimes "we're damned if we do and damned if we don't."

Story asked some tough questions this week as the board talked for almost 90 minutes about our recent story regarding a medical malpractice lawsuit and our civil court coverage in general. (See previous post for more.) He and others expressed concern that the newspaper should avoid giving the impression it was unfairly singling out any doctor or giving an unbalanced picture of anyone being sued. People can be sued even when a case is without merit.

Others argued civil court cases regularly produce news. We report on subjects of high public interest and importance. Until trial, our court system is tilted toward the prosecution in a criminal case and toward the plaintiff in a civil case. While we make our best efforts to equally present both sides, that's not always possible in a single story.

As with most discussions of ethics, we didn't all agree, and we didn't come to one neat and tidy conclusion. We agreed we'd continue to cover newsworthy civil cases, but we'd take these steps in the name of fairness:

-- We will continue to wait up to 30 days after a civil filing to be sure the defense files a response and a case isn't immediately thrown out by the court.

-- During that month, we will give extra time to the plaintiff and defendant to comment on the case for our coverage.

-- We will look into whether it's feasible to publish a weekly list of all significant civil filings in district and federal court. This would help our reporting be comprehensive and give readers a chance to look at the cases for themselves.

-- We will create a list on our website of ongoing civil cases we are following. Board members expressed a concern that the slow pace of court cases gives the impression we aren't following up on stories. This list will help both the public and us follow the process.

-- In our initial story about a case, we will be mindful of the fact that those suing usually spell out much more of their side than the person being sued. Because of that, we might limit how much detail we provide of the plaintiff's side in the early stages of a case. Again, the goal here is fairness.

-- We will scrutinize harder whether the filing of a case warrants front-page or inside-page placement. Many board members said they would have felt better about the recent malpractice story if it had been shorter and placed in the local news section rather than the top of the front page.

Story described this month's meeting as the best one he's attended yet. We thank him and our other outside member, University of Houston-Victoria communications professor Macarena Hernandez, for their service to the community.

At next month's meeting, we plan to talk more about coverage of suicides. (See previous post for background.) As always, we welcome your views, too. If you ever have a topic you'd like the ethics board to discuss or would be interested in making a presentation to our group, please let us know.