Journalists must earn the trust to report on criminal investigations :: WRAL.com

As a journalist who has covered the criminal justice system for decades, one of the biggest challenges for me is obtaining information and interviews with people involved in a case while it is still pending.

Episode 10 of What’s Left deals with a case that highlights this issue, the murder of Monica Moynan. We did the interviews for this episode before the case went to court. After completing our initial production, the case finally made its way through the legal process. We will include and share the outcome of the case with you. But so far, everyone has been very tight-lipped about it.

Over the years, with the proliferation of widely shared criminal case information on the Internet, prosecutors and investigators are getting closer and closer to the vest when it comes to speaking with the media. They are wisely concerned that their words have been taken out of context and published online, on social media, in a form that could get them in trouble with the court and jeopardize the case.

This warning not to talk to the media has more recently extended to the families of the victims. Prosecutors often ask them not to talk to us because it’s a situation they can’t control. Again, they fear that something a family member might say could hurt the judge the wrong way and cause important evidence to be thrown out of court.

Cases must be tried in the courts, not in the media

In short, it is much easier to talk about a case that has been decided by a court. Once there is a resolution, everyone, including the jurors, is free to speak, safe from any fallout from the judge or the court. But while a case is still pending, it is important that journalists try to obtain any publicly available information while respecting the nature of the legal process. The old adage Cases should be tried in court, not in the media is still important in my mind. And this is where the integrity of the individual journalist takes center stage. We are called to tell the fullest story possible while understanding that the officers of the law owe us nothing. Their allegiance is, and must be, to protecting the integrity of the case.

How do journalists gain trust?

So how can we as journalists overcome these fears and convince the parties involved that they can trust us? It is not easy. For prosecutors and investigators, that means building relationships, often over years, where you prove you won’t take information out of context or put words in their mouths. If you burn someone once, they’ll probably never talk to you again.

It is more difficult when it comes to family members of victims. When a loved one is murdered, it is often the family’s first experience with the criminal justice system. They don’t know how the system works, they don’t know what’s next, they don’t know who to trust. It is natural for them to be afraid to speak to the media, especially if an attorney has advised them not to. There is no guide on how to be a murder victim’s family. There is no roadmap for this.

Humans first, journalists second

What I always tell people is that they have the right to talk to whoever they want about the case. But is it in their interest? What I’m trying to do is balance the needs of the story with what feels like the right course of action for the family. I often ask people to just talk about the person they lost, put a human face on the tragedy, and leave the facts of the case to the court. If they choose not to interview, I politely leave, knowing full well that they have no obligation to speak to me.

It’s those pivotal moments that test us — that ask us to be human first and journalists second. It’s not easy, but given the choice, I choose the human every time.


What Remains episode 10 is now available in all podcast apps. Find the transcripts of the episodes on www.whatremainspodcast.com.

Mark M. Gagnon