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Saturday, August 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/9/2014

COMMENTARY

Addresses of accused help prevent mistaken identity

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
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Melinda Rober, a former athletic trainer at Clay High School in Oregon, is in considerable legal difficulty. Last year she was indicted on two counts of sexual battery by a Lucas County grand jury in connection with her alleged conduct with a 17-year-old boy.

Last month, Ms. Rober, 36, was indicted on a new sexual battery charge on connection with another 16-year-old boy in August, 2011. She is also the subject of four lawsuits filed by former Clay students who say they were abused.

The Blade has devoted considerable coverage to this case. Her attorney, Steve Hartman, hasn’t challenged the accuracy of anything the newspaper has printed, but objects to one thing:

“There have been several articles in The Blade about her case,” he wrote to me, “and every time there is an article, The Blade prints her home address. Is this really necessary? I know it’s not illegal to do, but every time there is an article, she gets letters … which run from unpleasant to repugnant,” he said.

The attorney added, “To the best of my recollection, The Blade doesn’t print the addresses of crime victims, so why print the address of someone who has been charged, but not convicted?”

After all, he noted, his client, like any other person, “enjoys a presumption of innocence until and unless convicted.”

So — does your ombudsman think this is fair?

Kurt Franck, The Blade’s executive editor, said the paper is not doing anything different with the Rober case; the newspaper just has a longtime policy of printing addresses of people indicted for serious felonies, something a random check of the files indicated is so.

To be sure, Melinda Rober is entitled to a presumption of innocence. In fact, not all of the stories about her case have used her Point Place address, though many of them have.

None of the stories have flatly said that she did the things she is accused of, only that formal charges have been filed.

If she is acquitted of these charges or they are dropped, your ombudsman believes The Blade also has an obligation to report that, and do so prominently. But the charges against her are indeed official legal proceedings, and part of the public record.

Your ombudsman can think of two good public service reasons for doing so. Back in 1988, the release of a convicted rapist named Willie Horton became a major issue in that year’s presidential campaign. The Detroit Tigers then had a recently retired outfielder named Willie Horton, whose worst fault was to occasionally lunge at bad pitches. He highly resented it when, on several occasions, people or reporters asked if he was the same man as the rapist.

A computer search found other Melinda Robers in this country. My guess is that they would all strongly prefer to avoid being confused with the former athletic trainer in Toledo.

Also while there so far is no reported evidence of this here, there have been many other cases where people have noticed suspicious activity by a particular person in a particular neighborhood, but had no idea what the perpetrator’s name might be.

Printing the address of someone formally charged with a serious crime could lead to additional witnesses coming forward.

Your ombudsman understands and applauds Mr. Hartman’s concern for his client’s welfare. But on balance, once a person is formally charged with a serious crime, I see no problem with a local newspaper printing the address where they live.

■ With Ukraine much in the news, Toledoan Kevin Joyce wants to know “why The Blade chooses to use the Russian spelling of Kiev for the Ukrainian capital rather than using the Ukrainian spelling?”

The answer is largely to avoid confusion. This is not a simple problem. Both the Russian and Ukrainian languages use Cyrillic letters, and it is a question of how you transliterate them into our Roman alphabet. Kiev has been the usual way since at least 1804.

The New York Times and the Associated Press tend to set the style standard for most newspapers, and they use Kiev. However, things have been changing since Ukraine became independent, following the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The Ukrainian government began using Kyiv in late 1995, and Washington began using this spelling on official documents in 2006.

Conceivably, news services may someday change as well, but at this point, doing so would be likely to cause confusion among readers who might wonder if Kyiv was a different city as Kiev.

This is far from the only instance. English-speaking newspapers don’t call the Polish capital Warszawa, though that is its real name, and we don’t call Hungary what its people call it: Magyarorszag.

We do, however, try to present a clear and relevant picture of what is going on in those places when they are in the news.

■ Scientists will tell you that any attempt to describe scientific phenomena in popular language is bound to lead to errors.

Gary Franks, a Perrysburg engineer, didn’t like the use of the term “wide” in a recent story about a proposed Columbia Gas pipeline. “The context clearly indicates the proper term is diameter,” he said. “The proper description of their size is ‘20 inches in diameter,’ not ‘20 inches wide,’” he argued.

Assistant Managing Editor Luann Sharp doesn’t claim to be an engineer, but does know something about pipes. “I agree that wide is not a synonym for diameter, as it can relate to flat surfaces.”

But the dictionary does indicate width is an acceptable substitute, though “inside diameter” might have been most accurate. Word choice, unlike engineering, is seldom an exact science, and your ombudsman appreciates Mr. Franks bringing this to my attention.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610 or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Reminder: If you don’t leave an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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