The Rittenhouse case and the press's duty to report with depth on criminal cases

  • Jim Slusher

    Jim Slusher

 
 
Posted11/11/2021 1:00 AM

What you think of Kyle Rittenhouse may depend a lot on your politics.

Almost as soon as he was arrested on charges of killing two people and wounding a third at a Kenosha protest last year, many hard-line conservatives and gun-rights advocates were quick to hail him as a patriotic hero, persecuted for deigning to use a weapon to protect himself and the lives and property of others.

 

Just as quickly, many political liberals and civil rights activists branded the 17-year-old former Antioch High School student a hotheaded dropout eager to inflate a tough-guy ego behind the trigger of a deadly weapon of war.

Both themes have been advanced during Rittenhouse's murder trial, and among the important take-aways for the public and the press -- not to forget the jury -- is the recognition that he is not an empty, one-dimensional storybook character.

No one is.

This is an important consideration, easily overlooked, in every sensational news story and every criminal trial.

Attorneys for both sides have a stake in the image a jury forms of a defendant, and they generally put little effort into offering nuances of behavior and personality that don't fit the narrative they want to create. This can be particularly difficult for partisans or, especially, people with a direct interest in a case. Families and friends of the accused often react with outrage at press reports early in a trial that feature prosecutors' negative descriptions of defendants and speculations about their motives. Victims and their families often bristle later in the proceedings at contrary, sympathetic defense portrayals.

The press is not, of course, an active participant in the legal proceedings, but before, during and after a case at trial, we do feel responsibilities to provide a foundation for multidimensional portraits of the subjects involved. This duty is especially profound in high-profile, politically charged cases like Rittenhouse's -- and certainly it extends not just to the defendant but equally to the victims.

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This is not always conducive to capitalizing on a story's emotional appeal. News reports that promote a predetermined sensational narrative can attract attention and build interest in a case. That approach was common in crime reporting of the early and mid-20th century, but responsible reporting today avoids that style in favor of finding a deeper truth, an especially important concern in an age of unrestrained fervor on social media.

Having a complex character does not preclude a suspect from being guilty of murder, to be sure, nor does it exclude someone harmed from being either a provocateur or a wronged victim. It does remind readers and interested observers, however, that the people involved in tragic criminal events are indeed that -- people, flesh-and-blood human beings capable of acts of frank brutality as well as sincere compassion.

When the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is complete, it is likely that not even the jurors watching and hearing every pertinent detail the attorneys lay out before them will truly know who the defendant is. Their job will be to determine whether this multidimensional young man committed murder, a job made both more difficult and more poignant by recognizing likewise his faults and his capacity for decency.

That's a difficulty we in the press must share and that we hope reasonable readers, whatever their political or social values, will embrace just as seriously.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at ­@­JimSlusher.

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