It’s never a newspaper’s aim to become part of the story, but it happens.

Sometimes it’s inadvertent, but sometimes it’s necessary, as in the case of the sexual assault allegation against Hallowell Police Chief Eric Nason and how it was handled by state and local officials.

The Kennebec Journal first reported in June that Nason was accused of sexual assault by a part-time Hallowell officer last year and that Nason was allowed to supervise her through a months-long investigation by Maine State Police. No charges were filed against Nason, while the officer was made full-time around the same time the case was closed in October.

Hallowell city councilors first found out about the allegations and the investigation in May. The city manager knew about the situation earlier, but decided against conducting an independent city investigation because of the state police inquiry.

The newspaper has filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court seeking the state police reports and other information from the investigation, which aren’t being released because of privacy concerns. The newspaper believes that, though state police say those reports should be kept private, the public’s right to know about the conduct of a city official outweighs privacy.

Since the legal matter is yet to be resolved, the details of the case won’t be hashed out here.

But when the Kennebec Journal filed the suit and published its first story on the issue, it opened the floodgates to a bigger discussion – the fact that many city officials, sexual assault advocates, readers and other observers think the newspaper is going too far and ought to drop it.

The arguments against the paper’s stance are as varied as those making them, but it boils down to two issues: how much privacy protection those who bring sexual assault charges should get and how much nosing around a newspaper should do into the investigation of a public official.

Everyone who reacts to a story about an attack or an accusation brings his or her own perspective to it, and many of those perspectives are forged by the pain of personal experience.

When newspapers start prying the top off stories like this, the potential exists that many people, not only those involved in the story, will feel the effects.

Some have told the paper’s editors that too many details about the case will have a “chilling effect” on victims of assault coming forward.

Others are concerned that constant hammering by the newspaper will keep the city from being able to govern properly and that a government official, even one who has been investigated for criminal activity, has a right to privacy.

The backdrop to those arguments is a social media flurry speculating on our motives and accusing us of everything from greed to hypocrisy.

That’s OK. We can take it.

Journalists, at least the good ones, didn’t go into the business to be liked, or even understood. The role of good journalism is to inform and tell the truth about the world around us. Where government is concerned, it goes a step further – by accurately and proactively publishing what government is up to, it helps to keep things honest.

When we ask for information regarding cases like this, we aren’t looking for salacious details. We make decisions every day about what we will and won’t put in the newspaper, what’s relevant to the story and what isn’t – not only on stories like this, but virtually every story.

We try hard to protect the identities of people who bring sexual assault or abuse charges, because we know that this issue, more than any other, puts those bringing charges in a delicate and frequently painful situation. In the Nason case, the officer has not been identified by the newspaper. However, her lawyer has talked openly about the case and provided documents about it and that information is necessary to provide a credible story.

We understand the concerns that printing details about such cases will keep victims from coming forward.

Statistics bear out that at least half the victims of sexual assault don’t report it.

Fear of the details being published in the newspaper may be part of that, but many victims don’t report assaults because they fear they won’t be believed, or their reputation and actions will become the focus of the case. Or the person who assaulted them is in a position of power.

Making some details of the investigation public will not only help victims of assault understand that people in positions of power are subject to the same rules and scrutiny as everyone else, but also reassure the public at large that they are.

Shining the light on a story like this makes it clear that public officials aren’t held to a different standard than anyone else and that even the smallest governments need someone watching them.

Many Hallowell residents may have been surprised to read in a subsequent Kennebec Journal story that the city doesn’t have a policy concerning relationships between employees of a department. The city has since formed a committee to examine personnel policies to guard against inappropriate workplace relationships between supervisors and staff.

Many city residents and those interested in the story were probably surprised to read about the fact that there seemed to be little concern about the police chief and officer working together during the investigation and the time the charges were brought. City Manager Michael Starn told the Kennebec Journal last month that while he was aware of the situation, he left it “in other people’s hands” – the state police. Starn, citing conversations with unnamed members of the police department during the investigation, also said he determined “whatever activities took place were done off-duty between consenting adults.”

Maine is made up of a lot of small governments. It’s easy for the selectmen or the planning board or the city council to act with few checks and balances. The case of Chelsea’s Carole Swan is a good example – a series of articles by the Kennebec Journal over several years uncovered the fact that as a selectwoman she was defrauding the town and was recently sentenced to federal prison for it.

While public officials should be treated like everyone else when it comes to allegations made against them, their behavior should also be held to a higher standard. Public money pays their salaries in a state where money is hard to come by. More important than money is public trust and responsibility. Public officials are making decisions that affect our lives and the quality of our community.

Those who live in the community have a right to know how those decisions are being made.

Thomas Jefferson famously said he’d take newspapers over government (paraphrasing, but you know the quote). Agree or disagree, but we’re still here and when we do our jobs right, we are an important part of how democracy, even in small-town Maine, works.

We welcome the discussion, even the criticisms, because that’s part of how it works, too.

Maureen Milliken is news editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at m[email protected]. Twitter: @mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.


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