Front page news

The Lester Jones murder trial coincided with a number of other high-profile court cases and arrests, creating a recent extended period of crime-heavy Sentinel front pages.

The trend hasn’t escaped notice. No less than District Attorney Dan Rubinstein wondered if that much bad news could have a demoralizing effect on the community or hamper economic development efforts.

It’s a fair question. We tend to view ourselves as an agnostic organization, just reporting the facts, but choosing stories for the front page is subjective. Each of the stories in question, in our editors’ estimation, merited front-page treatment because they involved egregious crimes of considerable interest to the community.

We aren’t the public-relations arm of the Grand Valley. “Burying” bad news stifles discourse and prevents important questions from emerging. One of them could be whether we have a crime problem — or more specifically, a sex-crimes problem — in the Grand Valley.

Rubinstein doesn’t think so, although it would take a statistical analysis to know for sure. Rather, a host of factors conspire to create that impression. “I know we go to trial more than other jurisdictions and our trials take longer, which is one of the things that has resulted in more coverage,” Rubinstein observed.

The Grand Valley has a robust media presence with a daily newspaper, three TV stations and radio news divisions all competing for the eyes and ears of news consumers. “So the community is more aware of stuff going on,” Rubinstein said. “It’s not necessarily that we have more crime.”

Another factor is the competence of law enforcement investigators. They deliver a lot of prosecutable cases, many of which have landed on the Sentinel’s front page

Among them: The Jones case, which has drawn national media attention; a three-week, nine-victim sex assault trial; motions hearings in the first-degree murder of a police officer; a heinous case of sexual exploitation of a child; and other sex crimes involving children.

It takes a lot of manpower and taxpayer dollars to prosecute these cases. Pushing them to the back of the newspaper gives short shrift to the law enforcement officials, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and jurors who take their duties seriously. Our community should know — and take pride — in our criminal justice system.

The spate of front-page crime stories largely boils down to timing. Had the headlines been spaced out weeks or months apart, we doubt readers would have accused the paper of sensationalism. But the fact that they happened within a span of four or five weeks, gave rise to questions, which has value in itself.

Conversations about timeliness, relevance, importance, impact and placement of certain stories take place every day in this newsroom. Stories with a law-enforcement angle are among the most viewed on our website. That’s not the most important factor in story placement, but it does reflect reader behavior.

The vast majority of crime stories run inside. If crime headlines sell newspapers, we’re apparently missing the boat.


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