Should news teach?
A former Nevada district judge says journalists often pass up the chance to educate the public, and he pointed to a recent bail dispute as an example.
In Lyon County, Walter Ball shot his wife and abducted his three daughters before one of the daughters shot and killed him. At the time of the incident, Ball was out on bail in a previous suspicion-of-rape charge, and the bail had been lowered from $250,000 to $100,000 with the prosecutor’s consent. The Sheriff’s Office later said it received calls and e-mails complaining about the lowering of bail, which sparked some news stories.
Lew Carnahan, who is a former Washoe County municipal and state District Court judge, says the stories on the dispute offered an opportunity for “a civics lesson” within the news coverage, but journalists failed to provide it. He said that while the public seems to consider bail as a reward to be withheld at will, in fact it is a fundamental right, and news coverage of bail clashes should explain it.
“To me, this is an excellent opportunity for a local civics lesson. … Bail is not to punish people before they’ve had a trial. It’s not to keep people in jail. It’s the minimum amount necessary, in the opinion of the judge, to get the guy to come to court. … There’s a lot more who are innocent but were kept in jail because the bail was too high—because there’s this wide misunderstanding that allows judges to be criticized in the rare occasions when something goes bad—than there are guilty people who are prevented from doing crimes because the bail’s too high.
“The purpose of bail is to insure that the person comes to court when their case is called.”
The Declaration of Rights in the Nevada Constitution says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor shall cruel or unusual punishments be inflicted, nor shall witnesses be unreasonably detained.” It provides something of an exception for death-penalty offenses: “All persons shall be bailable by sufficient sureties; unless for Capital Offenses or murders punishable by life imprisonment without possibility of parole when the proof is evident or the presumption great.”
Even if this were not specified in the state constitution, the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights says much the same thing: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
UNR journalism professor Jake Highton says greater explanation of how familiar things work is essential to journalism.
“I think one of the biggest failings of the press is failure to give the whys of stories. A story a couple of years ago in the Reno Gazette-Journal quoted state Sen. Maurice Washington on charter schools. He was reported as saying mistakes were made, problems exist. What were those mistakes? What are problems? … Perhaps this was gutlessness rather than bad reporting. But a good copy editor would have demanded answers to those questions.” Highton says the recent spate of stories about gas taxes told the public little about where the burden of those taxes fall and whether that burden is fairly distributed.
Carnahan says such a civics-lesson approach to the news could inform the public on many issues that touch them directly.