Four cases do not constitute a trend

Some years ago, I stumbled on an interested and unexpected trend.

I covered a murder trial where the suspect defended himself. As a one-off, it might not be overly noteworthy. Then, it happened again; another murder suspect defended himself.

It brought to mind another suspect who successfully defended himself against criminal charges not once but twice.

As a reporter, I wondered what the odds were of people representing themselves in such high-profile cases. New to covering courts, I thought it made for an interesting question.

So, I headed down to the local jail to interview one of the men who acted as his legal counsel to ask a simple question. We chatted for a bit, I culled some quotes for a story, and he became my pen pal — or at least he sent me a series of letters from jail.

I talked to defense attorneys and other potential experts to ask them a deceptively simple question: Why?

I wrote, then filed my story. I thought it worked. I didn’t couch it as a complete investigation into everyone acting as an attorney to defend themselves in a criminal case.

Something strange happened when I opened the paper the day the story was published.

Unbeknownst to me, an editor rewrote the story to make it sound like this was a trend based on the actions of four people. At the time, I was appalled but didn’t make my disdain known to the paper’s editor. It was, however, just one of many stories published under my byline but rewritten by editors to change the slant.

Looking back, in this particular case, it overstated a trend. In this instance, I was writing a story to investigate why someone might want to act as an attorney in a high-profile criminal case.

I did not envision — or even pitch it — as an exhaustive review of all criminal cases over a specific timeframe. That is possible and arguably more interesting, but with limited time at a small publication, that was not possible.

This story has stuck with me in the years since it was published. I learned this is what journalists do — or did before they became rewriters of press releases. They walked into a diner or stood in front of a post office and asked people their opinions on various hot-button issues burning a hole in the newsprint.

Look! Three out of four people agree that some proposed policy is rubbish. Let’s write a front-page, above-the-fold story based on the first four people we could find.

Does that make for an exhaustive analysis of opinions on any given issue? Just think of that the next time you see a man on the street segment in print or, more likely, on the television.