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Internet, public opinion shouldn’t erode legal system

Our nation’s founding fathers knew what they were doing when they created a government and legal system built on the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” However, if we — as a society — aren’t vigilant, this becomes “guilty until proven innocent and called lots of nasty things online either way.”

Wait for actual criminal charges? Pshaw. No need for those because rumors are almost the same thing, right? Seek a trial in a court of law? Come on. That is so 20th century! Someone does something you don’t like? Attack them personally in all sorts of ways that go far beyond the issue at hand.

Unfortunately, these extremes seem to capture the mentality of a small but vocal group of people today. Social media forums often become a virtual free-for-all.

Thankfully, people like this are the exception, not the rule.

Most Americans still believe in the system our country was founded on, although not everyone understands how government and the media complement one another.

Some people have questions about how the newspaper decides whether or not to print someone’s name when they are connected to a crime. The answer is much simpler than many people think.

If someone is formally charged with a crime, his or her name will be printed in the newspaper. Until law enforcement formally does that, it will not be printed.

That’s it. The decision is really that simple in almost all situations.

It can be very frustrating to readers and the community when investigations drag on and on. Sometimes no charges ever materialize.

The decision to publish something is never influenced by who an individual accused is, or other factors tied to status. No one should receive special treatment and the citizens of Boyle County deserve to know when anyone has been charged with a serious crime.

But until charges are filed, no one should be publicly accused.

The other thing to remember is that “innocent until proven guilty” still applies after someone is arrested. It takes due process in a court of law to determine which of those two words apply.

Far too many people are convicted in the court of public opinion, where cowards hiding behind a keyboard or a shield of anonymity play judge, jury and virtual executioner with no oversight. The Advocate-Messenger allows comments on Facebook posts and its website but works very hard to monitor those to create a forum that sparks conversation and discussion instead of attacks.

Our newsroom is staffed with trained professionals who love the role they play in the community. They are here because they have a passion for what they do and take great pride in reporting the news quickly, accurately and fairly.

We work very hard to ensure the same rules apply to everyone. That has to be the case for a newspaper to truly serve its role as a community voice and watchdog.

I pursued a career in journalism because individuals like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who investigated the Watergate break-in for The Washington Post; Ida Tarbell, whose work to expose Standard Oil was the first investigative journalism; and the New York Times’ publishing of the Pentagon Papers that helped create the concept of open records and government transparency.

I may never reach these pinnacles of excellence, but I am proud to be a part of what I believe was once viewed as — and should still be today — one of the most honorable professions.

Simply put, The Advocate-Messenger still believes in the fundamentals of our legal system — that no one should be accused before they are charged or convicted before they have their day in court.

We also believe in the foundation of journalism — integrity, openness, fairness and accuracy. We aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean we will ever stop striving for that mountaintop.

Michael Caldwell is interim publisher of The Advocate-Messenger and Danville Living Magazine. He can be reached at (859) 469-6452 or by email at mike.caldwell@amnews.com.