When former state Assemblyman Chris Ortloff was arrested this past week on charges that he used the Internet to try to have sex with minors, reporters covering the case were given an 18-page document detailing why prosecutors wanted him to remain in jail.
The detention memo from the court offered reporters new and important information about the government’s case against the 61-year-old Ortloff, a Plattsburgh Republican who served in the state Assembly for 20 years and was, at the time of his arrest, a member of the state Parole Board paid $102,000 a year.
The memo offered a fascinating narrative of how, over the course of the past several months, Ortloff allegedly pursued an online relationship with a woman with the intent of having sex with her two daughters, aged 11 and 12.
On its face, the document argued against releasing Ortloff on bail, with prosecutors arguing that the nature of the offenses made it important to keep Ortloff in jail to ensure the safety of the community.
The document detailed the operation in which an undercover FBI agent posed as the mother of the two fictional girls. The memo was fascinating reading, with repeated references to Ortloff allegedly offering guidance about arranging the rendezvous and avoiding detection by authorities.
The memo was also, in sections, disturbingly salacious, with graphic sexual references and allegations that Ortloff had in the past sexually molested two young girls.
It was, nonetheless, an important part of the story and reporters, including our Jill Bryce, used the document as the basis for some of their ensuing coverage of the high-profile case.
Offered some details
The story she wrote for Thursday’s editions, as well as a column on the same day by Carl Strock, judiciously quoted the detention memo, offering readers some details of the allegations and how the sting operation had unfolded.
But the document itself raised a question we needed to deal with in the newsroom. In the old days, before the Internet digitally expanded our capacity, publishing this kind of lengthy document in the newspaper wouldn’t have been possible.
With our Web site, posting background documents has become a valuable way of enriching the stories we write. With the Ortloff memo in hand, we had the option of posting it on our Web site.
Making a choice
But being able to do something doesn’t always mean we should. Newsroom discussions of this sort can be lengthy and heated. This one was fairly brief, with editors who read the document agreeing that its level of detail crossed the line, particularly because children were involved. We kept the document off our Web page. We were concerned both by the explicitness of some of the passages, as well as some potentially identifying information about alleged real-life victims.
A few media organizations did post the document on their Web pages, allowing people actively looking for it a chance to find it. Most of those Web sites gave readers a general warning about the graphic nature of the document they were about to read.
Still, we chose to keep the document off our Web site. While we value the public’s right to be informed, there are times when we need to show restraint. The level of detail in this document was more titillating than informative.
That doesn’t mean we’re timid when it comes to covering these kinds of difficult stories. But it does mean that the standards that have so long guided what we do in our print edition will continue to guide what we post online.
Decisions about what documents to post online are just one example of the new kinds of ethical issues newsrooms are dealing with in the digital age. Here at The Gazette, we’ve begun the process of revising our Code of Ethics to guide as we approach these decisions in the future.
At this point, we’re playing catch-up. We don’t, for example, allow people to write anonymous letters to the editor in print; should we continue to allow them to anonymously post on our Web site? Will requiring people to identify themselves stifle discussion? Should reporters be expressing opinions in blogs? What kinds of controls, if any, should we have on how we link to other Web sites?
Our discussions have just begun and with the Internet rapidly changing what we do, new issues we haven’t even imagined may likely crop up.
Gazette Managing Editor Judy Patrick’s Editor’s Notes column appears monthly in the Sunday Opinion section. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to 2345 Maxon Road Extension, PO Box 1090, Schenectady, NY 12301-1090.