Ryan Larson case shows damage of reporting ‘just the facts’

Ryan Larson, the man falsely suspected of killing Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker in 2012, might have a struggle in court proving his defamation suits against — so far — WCCO and KSTP, but with any luck, he’ll succeed in getting local news media to take a step back and a deep breath in similar stories in the future.

“The police arrested and jailed a man and charged him, and we reported that,” KSTP attorney Joseph Roby Jr., tells the Star Tribune in reaction to the latest defamation suit from Larson.

And that’s the problem. The police were in a big hurry to find the guy who killed their colleague and the news media didn’t raise the standard for naming suspects, given the lowering of theirs. There was never any real evidence against Larson, but that didn’t stop reporters from racing to show his mug shot and name him as a suspect only on the strength of what police said.

The decision not to charge Larson wasn’t a close one, the county attorney said.

But even when it was clear someone else killed Officer Decker, reporters and news organizations toed the police line in stressing that Decker wasn’t cleared. Cleared? He hadn’t even been charged with anything. There wasn’t anything to clear him of.

Even after Larson had been released from jail, he couldn’t catch a journalism break. The Star Tribune ran a Sunday story on the lack of charges, included the ubiquitous mug shot, and ended with this nugget:

The Scoleses said Larson has been frustrated at school lately because there weren’t enough machines for him to complete his milling work. He also had a nasty break-up with a girlfriend a year or so ago.

According to a 2009 affidavit filed by a 35-year-old former girlfriend, Larson had temper issues. She told authorities he could become “instantly very angry, aggressive and agitated” — often breaking her belongings “in a fit of rage.”

“With each incident, the violence level goes up,” the woman stated in court documents in Stearns County. “It’s starting to escalate and snowball, and I am fearful. … He deals with unfavorable situations with violence, anger and aggression. And knowing that Ryan has a gun in the house with ammo only makes me more scared.”

The innuendo seemed fairly clear.

“We just reported what the cops said” is a solid First Amendment defense in cases like this. But cases like this should remind all of us that we should be better and more careful. Our job isn’t to be stenographers. It’s to get the story right.

Archive: In matters of guilt and innocence, getting it right is time well spent (NewsCut).