Kyle Troutman: Crime stories cause a stir

Saturday, September 25, 2021

There’s no good way to report bad things.

All too often, I am tasked with one of my least favorite job duties — writing a crime story where a child or children are the victims of alleged sexual abuse.

These crimes are much more prevalent than you may think, and while not a scientific number, I’m confident in saying 95 percent of child sex crime cases I report involve children who know and trust the adults accused of the abuse.

One of these cases reared its ugly head this week. When I report crime stories, those who reach out to me generally ask the same two questions first: how do you get your information, and how do you choose what stories to report or to not report?

The first one is easy to answer. Every crime story I write comes from probable cause statements. In short, a probable cause is the narrative of the incident submitted by law enforcement to the county prosecutor suggesting charges. The prosecutor then may choose to file those exact charges, file lesser charges, file greater charges or file no charges at all depending on what he or she thinks is provable in a trial beyond a reasonable doubt.

A few times throughout the week, I check our local jail rosters for who has been arrested, why and what the bond amount is. Obviously, charges like murder or attempted murder are reported immediately, so too are things like armed robbery, though we generally don’t have too many of those in our area. Sex crimes, burglaries and thefts also frequently come up and usually warrant a look at the probable cause statement.

The answer to the second question is not as simple. In general, I bypass any case where the bond is below $10,000, and while I look up domestic assault probable cause statements regularly, I do not always report them because such crimes are usually between couples and do more emotional damage to the victim than anything else.

Other things play minor parts, like the prominence of the accused. A more prominent person’s lesser crime is more likely to be reported due to the person’s position, especially elected officials. Space and time constraints can also play a role. Some weeks, we won’t have room for what I would consider a minor crime story, or I wouldn’t have time to write it.

Because of those factors, choosing stories can be a little grey at times, but I do my best to be consistent and fair.

This story gaining attention this week is about Dakota Campbell, a 30-year-old charged with first-degree sodomy and second-degree child molestation for allegedly abusing a child under the age of 10 at last four times in 2019 and 2020. The molestation charge is a B felony, higher than I normally see in our area and on par with voluntary manslaughter, attempted murder, kidnapping or drug trafficking and punishable by 5-15 years in prison.

The feedback I received primarily claims the article is “false information” and that I should wait until someone is proven guilty before reporting.

As for the first claim that my information is false, this story is like every other crime story I report and has the probable cause statement to back up my article. Every single thing I wrote is word-for-word or a paraphrase from the statement. I will also email copies of the statement to anyone who requests it, as I stand firmly behind my reporting.

In this case specifically, there is more paraphrasing than normal due to how specific the statement gets and gruesome details that don’t pass the Cheerios test (if it would make you spit your morning Cheerios out in disgust, it’s not fit for print).

In fact, over the years I have continually crafted my coverage of child sex crimes to give less and less specific detail, in part to protect the victim, and also in part due to the graphic descriptions law enforcement must put in the statement for the prosecutor to pursue appropriate charges.

I disguise age as much as I can, I go out of my way to avoid using any gender pronoun that might identify a victim as a boy or girl, and I tone down the language immensely — incredibly immensely.

As far as Mr. Campbell’s charges: are the allegations true? That is not for me to decide. Just like every other crime story I write, the evidence must be adjudicated and a verdict be reached, plea be made or charge be dropped.

My story reports what police believe has happened and the charges that have been filed, which is not false to report. Should Mr. Campbell be acquitted or relieved of the charges, I will report that, too.

I have also adjusted my views on our online coverage of these stories when the charges are dropped. It used to be our policy to never remove any story from online. There was one story in particular in Monett a few years ago where similar charged were filed and the charges were later dropped.

I kept the original story and dropped charges story both up for years after the incident. Recently, however, I have opted to remove them, as there seems to be no point in continuing to drag his name online for something that did not happen. I have also removed other old stories upon request when I have confirmed charges were dropped.

Following up on cases has been a challenge for us in the past, specifically because when a charge is dropped, it disappears from CaseNet and we are not notified. Unfortunately, we don’t have the staff to be at every hearing for every crime we cover. We do the best we can with what we have and, again, try to be as fair as possible.

I can truthfully say, I hope I never have to report another child sex crime case again. But not doing so would be a dereliction of my duty to inform the public of a longstanding issue in our area that does not appear to be going away any time soon.

Kyle Troutman has served as the editor of The Monett Times since 2014. In 2017, he was named William E. James/Missouri Outstanding Young Journalist for daily newspapers. He may be reached at 417-235-3135 or editor@monett-times.com.

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