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Editorial: The importance — and difficulty — of restraint in reporting the news

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Sometimes, restraint is a difficult thing. That was the case this week, when six members of a single family were killed in a horrible crash on Ham Lane.

Our coverage included accounts from credible eyewitnesses who said they saw a man driving a gold SUV at “freeway speeds” while talking on a cellphone just before the wreck.

The eyewitnesses said this man’s reckless behavior was the cause of the crash.

We learned later in the week the name of this individual and the fact that he was hospitalized as a result of the crash. We also knew that he was suspected of being under the influence of alcohol.

All of this was off the record.

In the era of social media, rumors and fact get mixed up. As journalists, it is our mission to provide facts, not speculation.

So we’ve tried to use restraint covering the criminal investigation of this horrible incident.

After all, this man had not been arrested, let alone charged or convicted. In our collective journalistic experience, things can and do get confused, including ages, names, motives and circumstances.

So it is important to be careful.

Being publicly named as the individual who was behind the wheel of a vehicle that wiped out six people is a terrific stigma, not one to be delivered lightly.

So we held off.

But Thursday night, at least one Sacramento TV station named Ryan Morales as the driver of the gold SUV.

Friday morning, we debated whether to move forward with the name, too. We decided to wait, to push for more information — and confirmation — from official sources.

Then on Friday afternoon, along with other media outlets, we obtained a copy of a search warrant served by the Lodi Police Department. The warrant named Morales as the driver of the gold SUV. It described how officers said they smelled alcohol on Morales at the accident scene and later learned that he had been drinking heavily before the accident.

He had not yet been arrested.

We considered what we had: the eyewitnesses’ account, the off-the-record comments from people close to the investigation, and now an official court document naming Morales.

We decided to publish a story online based on the search warrant, naming Morales. A short time later, Lodi police issued a press release officially naming Morales as a suspect.

We reflected that in an online story, as well.

Those online iterations are now included in today’s print copy of the News-Sentinel.

Morales has still not been arrested. He remains in a Sacramento hospital, in critical condition. Police aren’t saying why an arrest hasn’t yet been made. It seems likely the suspect’s medical condition complicates an arrest and later arraignment. Is he even conscious, able to fully understand the charges against him — or what a judge or lawyer are saying?

Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms has set a press conference on Monday, and we should know more then.

It is unusual for us to name someone as a criminal suspect without an arrest. It is unusual for the police to issue a press release naming a suspect without arresting them.

No doubt in the days to come we’ll get a stronger sense of whether we have acted with too much haste — or perhaps too much restraint.

However the story involving Ryan Morales evolves, we know that we’ve at least acted with a measure of reflection.

As usual, we welcome reader comments on our coverage, pro or con. Contact editor Rich Hanner at richardh@lodinews.com.

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