June 11, 2011

Reporting on youth crimes

The death of Karen Bourdon on May 1, allegedly at the hands of her 14-year-old son, raised a number of ethical questions in our newsroom.

When people have asked, over the years, what the hardest part of my job is, the answer has always been: Dealing with all the ethical issues that come up.

Almost every week, something difficult needs to be decided. Do we publish an unusual arrest even though it is a misdemeanor and we normally report only felonies? Do we allow an anonymous source in a story? Should a certain story run on Page 1 or an inside page?

There are no easy answers for most of these types of questions. We try to think about our responsibility to inform the community, our sensitivity to the people affected by news, our past history of dealing with a similar issue.

The Bourdon murder raised several tricky questions. Obviously, a murder is major news and must be reported. But this one involved a young teen, Dilan Clark.

Reporting on crimes by youths is always difficult. We are well aware that the record of their arrests and any conviction will stay with them for life.

We also know their brains are not fully formed, as has been confirmed in a number of studies, and therefore they aren't always at the top of their game when making decisions about risky behavior.

A violent crime perpetrated by a child is rare around here, the most notorious being the stabbing of 10-year-old Andrew Pitkin by Michael Murphy, his 14-year-old neighbor in Valcour, back in April 1984. Murphy is now 40 and still in prison. It is a story we have returned to many times as he goes before the Parole Board.

When we report on a teen involved in a high-profile crime, we will be criticized no matter how we play the story. Some people don't think it should even be in the paper.

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