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updated: 6/12/2014 9:09 AM

Simple blotter reporting is full of complexities

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Our top editors began a conversation this week that is likely to continue for a long time to come. And it's one in which you may have a direct interest and, ultimately, some desire to influence.

The topic is police blotter. Police blotter originated in newspaper reporting as a simple summary of events that occupied local emergency personnel. The idea was to let people know what their tax-paid safety agencies were dealing with and, especially, to help with such practical matters as warning of burglaries in a particular neighborhood or explaining to people why they may have seen a police or fire vehicle on their block. For these reasons, the blotter report we publish is one of the most consistently popular elements in the paper.

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But over the years, complications have arisen. We've had to wrestle with such issues as how much detail to include in identifying people arrested for particular crimes, what emergency activities to report and how to follow through to their legal conclusion things like minor fights or shoplifting charges that don't amount to much in the large scope of reader interest but can be devastatingly important to individuals charged or otherwise involved.

Additionally, for a variety of reasons of their own -- sometimes to affect impressions about the level of crime in a neighborhood or entire town, sometimes to influence perceptions of how they are dealing with certain types of crime and sometimes simply because they didn't like the news media -- individual towns and emergency departments came to be particularly selective about what information they released and how much detail they provided. The courts gave them wide latitude in making these decisions about public information, and many departments took it.

Now comes the Internet to add another layer of complexity. Whereas a youthful indiscretion once might have gotten a young man's name in the paper briefly and been soon forgotten, it now makes its way online where it remains forever in countless forms, waiting for any prospective employer, college, credit agency or other personal or business interest to cull out in a 5-second Google search.

All these issues and more frequently challenge our desire for consistent, fair reporting and our sensitivity to individual privacy concerns, But we always keep these standards high in our thinking. We know that blotter reporting is popular with readers, and we know it's popular for a reason. It's not just a source of gossip; it's practical information that can help people be safer and more knowledgeable about their neighborhoods and the agencies that protect them.

But we also want to be sensitive and thorough in our reporting, consistent in what we report from town to town and, to the degree possible, free of manipulation from towns or police or fire departments that may have their own agendas for releasing what they release and withholding what they withhold. Those concerns launched some frank and strongly conflicted soul searching among editors this week. We'll no doubt be spending more time studying and reflecting on these issues in the months ahead, hopefully with some guidance and influence along the way from readers.

Stay tuned.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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