The below letter was written by the Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief, Derek Myers.
This is going to be a long letter, but it is one that is needed because many people have been hurt, and that is not okay.
I had spent a couple of weeks out of town during the first part of May. It was my birthday and I had saved up some vacation time to try and get away from work for a little while, but being the news junkie I am, I can never actually stop working. I always find myself in a coffee shop, backroom, or Uber working on my laptop or phone, reading the latest world news, the politics that might be “news of the day,” and of course, keeping a pulse on the goings-on back home in Chillicothe.
Before I left town I had gone down to the post office to have my mail temporarily forwarded so it could be scanned in and emailed to me while I was gone for a couple of weeks. While I was away I had gotten a little concerned because I hadn’t received any notifications that any mail had been scanned, which I found odd for two weeks’ time.
So, when I arrived back in Chillicothe one of the first things I did was check the P.O. Box to see if any mail was in there that might not have been forwarded. And, to my surprise, there was a large stack, including a padded manilla envelope addressed to the Guardian. I guess the post office — somewhere along the line — didn’t process the forwarding request and the mail was piling up inside the box.
We get letters all the time. Sometimes they’re thank you cards for covering an event, many times we get anonymous news tips in the mail from someone afraid to use email, and we even get gifts from people, such as PR companies hoping we’ll run a story about some business they’re promoting.
When I saw a large envelope had a return address of Chillicothe High School I figured the broadcast students in the local journalism program had sent us something to review, watch, or publish; the reason that came to mind was that I had recently spoken with a teacher about journalism and the prospect of sharing community stories with the students.
When I opened the envelope it had five semi-folded papers with a typed font. I started to read the first three or so sentences when I realized what the letter was purporting to be: someone had sent a letter saying they were a local woman and that this was her final goodbye note. But why send it to us? To the news? And, specifically, me?
It was five pages long; and when I recognized the name, I laid down the paper and made a couple of calls. One of them was to the local Sheriff’s office explaining to them that I had received a letter involving the name of a person who had an opened homicide investigation. I knew, no matter who wrote the letter, that the police should have this as evidence and hopefully, it would help them in their investigation. Either this letter was truly written by a woman who was in distress, or someone else is trying to use it to their sick advantage by exploiting a heartbreaking situation.
As an editor of a powerful platform, I have to weigh every day what is newsworthy and what is not. Back in the day, the saying used to be, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” What that meant was that a newspaper or journalist could print something that would overtake any battle any day because of the powerful platform they possess. That rings true today, except in most instances, it’s a keyboard.
Having been someone on the receiving end of a false arrest article, I take great pride and ethical value in making sure when we run a story the lifelong lasting impact the story has on the subjects of the article is not adverse. That’s why, oftentimes, we don’t publish mugshots or even names, despite the event, itself, being newsworthy. After all, in crime stories, people are innocent until proven guilty, unless they’ve already been convicted in the Court of Public Opinion.
I thought for hours about the letter after the Sheriff picked it up and bagged it as evidence. I had a decision to make: do we report the letter as news without having proof of who actually wrote it since it involved such a high-profile case, or do we simply not mention it and let the police do their jobs? As a journalist, transparency has been the bedrock of my life philosophy. Even when I’ve received traffic citations, no matter how small, I have asked my team to write something on it to be transparent to the public; what is good for the goose is good for the gander, right?
That’s why I made the decision to publish the story in which I did; the one that covered the Guardian receiving the letter.
I reached out to local law enforcement for official comment on the matter; I was sure to contact the victim’s family in an effort to share the letter with them, and of course, ask for an on-the-record conversation if they felt comfortable; I thought I had covered all my ethical bases.
Given the sensitive nature of the situation, the family declined my offer, and law enforcement said they could not publicly speak about an ongoing investigation. But I still made the decision to run a story about the letter anyway. I felt the public should know that either A) we received a letter from a woman who was in distress, or B) we received a letter from someone pretending to be a missing woman who was using it for their own perversion. Either way, I said to myself, “Regardless of the author — whichever angle — the public deserves to know that this letter exists; they deserve to know that maybe she wrote it, or at minimum, someone else is breaking the law and pretending to be her.”
I made the decision to publish the letter and to redact the names of those involved except the primary subjects; I redacted the names of local officials, private citizens, and family members. I redacted their names because I could not confirm the authenticity of the letter and the allegations lodged against these individuals. However, I still felt the letter, itself, needed to be shared in its entirety for contextual purposes. So, with that, I redacted the names, wrote the story, and published it.
What would ensue would be a firestorm, and that is putting it lightly. I have had stories before that have received backlash and ones I thought would have lasting impacts of heartache for many, but in comparison to the attention that this story brought, those ones were mere thunderstorms, and this one, well, this one was a category five hurricane and a lot of people were impacted.
At first, I couldn’t understand why people would be upset at the facts: we received a letter and we informed the public of this letter. I openly disclosed that the letter could not be authenticated and that law enforcement was investigating its origin as part of their case into the death of a dearly beloved woman. By the end of the day, I realized that I had made the wrong decision. I realized that my keyboard was powerful and that even though I thought I had run through every possible scenario in my head, what I did not take into account was the emotions of a community that was hurting; a family in mourning; a police investigation that is still very much active. I was too laser-focused on what I thought was “transparency,” which actually ended up being hurtful to many. Even though I disclosed in the article that the letter could not be authenticated, the mere claim that the victim could have sent it was enough to hurt many. And, for that, I am sorry.
My decision impacted many people, and that decision will have a lasting impact, and no amount of apology will undo the hurt caused; no amount of explanation or “transparency” can erase the heartache that ensued. I messed up, I made a bad judgment call, and I have to live with the consequences of that now.
After deep thought, reflection, and consultation with family, friends, and even family members of the victim, some decisions have to be made. As editor of this publication, I take full responsibility for my actions and the content posted on this platform. I recognize the powerful platform that the Guardian possesses and I acknowledge the great responsibility that comes with it. That is why, as someone who remains at the steering wheel, I have made decisions in an effort to right the wrong. While it won’t undo what has happened, it will hopefully mitigate further damage as law enforcement pieces together their investigation into who has done what in this tragic case.
Effective immediately, the following will apply:
- All advertisement revenue generated on Friday — the day the story in question was published — will be donated to a local charity. A receipt of that donation will be shared with the public once it has been transacted.
- The original article has been modified to have the embedded PDF letter removed, and a disclaimer has been added to include that the original article was published with information that cannot be proven to be factual. In addition, a link to a second story detailing the law enforcement investigation into the letters has been hyperlinked in the original post.
- The social media postings of the article that received many shares have been removed from the Guardian’s social media platforms. While the articles, themselves, will remain with the disclaimers, monetization — advertisement — on the articles involved has been permanently disabled, which means no money will be made from clicks or views.
- I will be taking a two-week leave of absence from the publication without pay effective immediately. I will use this time to reflect on myself, my soul, and my purpose. The money generated from any advertisement or monetization during this period that I would normally reap will not be paid out to me. My normal salary will be revoked. The editorial duties and day-to-day operations of the publication will be delegated to the Guardian’s assistant editor, who will assume the interim title of Editor-in-Chief. During my suspension, I will attend 80 hours of training through the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. The training I will attend will involve ethics, how to identify crime stories, privacy, verifying the authenticity of news tips, compassion training, and more. Proof of this professional training will be shared once completed.
While none of these decisions will fix what has happened, it is imperative that I hold myself accountable for my actions, accept my errors, and more importantly, take the required steps to ensure others are not hurt. I stand by the facts of the article, but concede and acknowledge the sensitive nature.