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Reporting facts, or making judgments?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

Reporting news includes answering the questions that readers would ask.

No one should infer that we’re making a judgment when we seek factual answers to standard questions about things readers want to know.

For example, reporting on traffic accidents involves asking a straight-forward question about a cause of many wrecks: Was alcohol involved?

By asking that, we don’t mean to suggest we think drinking was a factor. We just want to know, as a matter of fact, whether it was.

But some folks take offense that we would ask such a question when it involves people they know.

If young people crash a car into a tree on a rural road at 3:30 a.m., many (probably most) readers will assume alcohol was involved.

To be fair, we also report when alcohol was not a factor.

People of all ages shouldn’t need a reminder not to drive drunk.

If jail isn’t enough of a deterrent, maybe newspaper publicity can make the argument more convincing.

Because we are going to report it.

SEVERAL WEEKS AGO, the editor got that Monday morning call.

She had been arrested over the weekend on a charge of driving under the influence, and she didn’t “need” that fact to appear in the newspaper.

We’re sorry. We print all of them that we get.

But, she insisted, she knows people whose DUI arrests were not published.

Maybe so, she was told, but that wasn’t because we withheld information we had. It was because we didn’t have it.

But don’t you make exceptions?

Not even for our own staff members. In fact, we move their names to the top of the list of arrests so that no one thinks we’re trying to bury the news.

We’re sorry.

AMONG THE OTHER standard questions we ask:

Were they wearing seat belts?

Was the motorcyclist wearing a helmet?

Regardless of whether you like the state’s seat-belt law or the preaching about the benefits of wearing a helmet, the safety advantages are undeniable.

Not all readers appreciate our line of questioning.

“I read with sadness about the young girl who was killed in an ATV accident,” a reader wrote recently in an online post. “Once again, you had to mention that no one was wearing a helmet (implying that a helmet would have saved her life). I am sure that the writer is not qualified to make that call. A doctor probably could not say with certainty, either.

“... If you support a helmet law, put it on the editorial page – not in a news article.”

This column recently addressed the difference between imply and infer.

The reader, of course, is free to infer what he wishes.

But facts are facts.

DOES ASKING THOSE questions imply an endorsement for seat belts and helmets?

Or is that merely the reporting of facts that readers want so they can decide for themselves whether belts and helmets are helpful?

Of course, some accidents are so horrific that no safety device could have prevented a death or serious injury.

But not all. Not even most.

We believe the science, statistics and common sense that say seat belts and motorcycle helmets save lives and lessen injuries. Their use in serious accidents is an essential part of our factual reporting of such things.

The safety factor of belts and helmets is worthy of any crusade to promote their use.

You might infer that our asking those questions is part of such a campaign.

Facts are still facts.

OUR REPORTERS ARE instructed to always ask investigating officers about the use of seat belts and helmets in:

A) fatal traffic accidents

B) accidents in which people are seriously injured

C) spectacular wrecks in which people somehow avoid serious injury

Additionally, they should ask the investigator for an opinion on whether use (or non-use) made a difference in the outcome of an accident.

Could use of a belt and/or helmet have saved a life or lessened injuries?

Was a life saved or were injuries less severe because of use?

If it did make/would have made no difference – in the trained investigator’s opinion – we should report that, too.

Such questions don’t lead to conclusive statistics. No one can know for sure.

But the answers provide some pretty convincing anecdotal evidence.

Facts are facts.

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