Not without cause
It is not so often that newspapers or other media outlets explain their decisions, to let readers in on the process of what we do or why.
Sometimes, in our haste to provide readers with the most factual information, we forget not everyone is tuned in, or necessarily even cares, about the choices we make, especially when it comes to sensitive stories.
We have had to make several difficult decisions over the past few weeks. Our recent centerpiece story about viruses, in which we examined the barrage of information hitting people about maladies rarely on their radar, required special care. We wished to enlighten, to cut through rumor and present facts about a frightening topic. Ironically, when a case of Ebola showed up in Dallas a week later, our decision to print information about the disease and the systems that are in place to detect it proved timely and relevant in a chilling way. My editor and the rest of us hope that readers took away enough information to help them process what they see, hear and read as this health issue is managed.
One of the more sensitive decisions concerned the death of Cameron Tillman, the 14-year-old Ellender Memorial High School student who was shot and killed by Terrebonne Sheriff’s Deputy Preston Norman as he investigated a report of young men with guns in an abandoned house on Kirkglen Loop in Village East.
As a weekly newspaper, we have the ability to collect facts within a given time frame in such a way as to allow the story, if it’s important enough, to be told in a thorough, big-picture context. There are aspects of the Tillman story that appear in this issue, the one you hold in your hands, because there was just too much information regarding some situations to allow telling in limited space.
One fact that appears in last week’s story is the identity of the officer. The Louisiana State Police, who are conducting the investigation into what occurred, have not released Norman’s name. Sheriff Jerry Larpenter has not released it either.
We were aware from the first day who the deputy was, and by the time our story was hitting the streets there was little reason for us to not make the disclosure. We did not do so in a way that sensationalized things, rather using the name in a context that related directly to the task at hand, which was supplying readers with the best information possible.
The power to kill as part of one’s job is a responsibility and sacred trust that police officers take very seriously, and that the community takes seriously as well. For a newspaper to identify the officer who was forced to make a life or death decision, once it is clear that doing so will not place that officer in the path of danger, is part of our responsibility. It is not an indictment; it is simple fact. Knowledge of who the officer is allowed us to do some vetting, to find out more about him, to weigh aspects of his background, of his history.
In talking freely with other officers we learned their assessment of Preston Norman overall, which we shared with readers. We took great care to make sure we referred to the right man.
Once we knew the identity and vetted what we could, it was our responsibility to share that with readers, in our opinion, because we are in the business of disclosing, not hiding. Nonetheless, while it is our right to print what we wish so long as it is true, we took extra steps such as informing people who know the officer that his identity would be disclosed, so that he didn’t wake up Wednesday morning and unexpectedly see his name in print.
The fact is that the name was already out on the street. A member of the Tillman family had received a traffic citation last year written by that same officer. Certain community members had almost immediate access to the information, as did police officers, their friends, their families and some other people.
There are valid arguments that can be made that in all cases when a police officer takes a life, rightly or wrongly, his or her identity should be a matter of immediate public record. That is not currently the law in Louisiana. In an environment where fact is not put first, for as many people to see as possible, the vacuum fills with rumor and falsehood.
We know who the second officer on the scene was, but have not identified him because that information had less relevance.
The State Police investigation is being conducted in large part to determine whether the deputy violated Louisiana criminal law when he took Cameron Tillman’s life. Policy implications, moral implications, the question of what decisions a 14-year-old did or did not make are not really a part of that. The question of how we respond to the incident as a community is not a part of that fact-finding mission, either. But in order to respond as a community we need as many facts as possible. Toward that end, I believe we have been true to our task, morally and professionally. It is up to all of you, the readers, to decide if that assessment is true and correct.