Lawsuits’ lesson to reporters: Slow down and get it right

Ryan Larson, the man wrongly accused in the November 2012 killing of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, is suing more news media organizations.

In the hours after Decker’s killing, Cold Spring police named Larson as a suspect — Decker had gone to Larson’s apartment at the family’s request to check on him — and local news media tossed policies not to name a suspect until formal charges are filed. A prosecutor freed Larson after quickly determining the charges were paper thin, and the man who most likely gunned down Decker later killed himself as authorities closed in on him.

Larson has sued and settled with several news organizations but is now targeting the St. Cloud Times, KARE 11, and their parent, Gannett, the St. Cloud Times reports.

In the case of the Times, Larson highlighted a headline on one article and a comment attributed to police in the article itself as being defamatory.

“Man faces murder charge” was the headline on a story written after Larson was arrested. He was released after spending four nights in the Stearns County Jail and was never charged. He cited as defamatory a paragraph in which the Times attributed to police a comment that Larson was responsible for the Decker shooting.

Larson’s allegations against KARE 11 are similar in that he cites comments from on-air personalities who attributed to investigators comments about Larson being the person who killed Decker.

“Neither news organization did anything more than simply report what local law enforcement officials were saying,” said Mark Anfinson, the attorney representing the Times and KARE 11. “And those reports were accurate, based on what law enforcement was telling the media and telling the public. The fact that what they believed turned out to be apparently wrong does not mean the news organizations are responsible for that.”

Previous suits were settled, although the terms were not disclosed.

Nonetheless, the situation provides a free lesson for reporters: Don’t just be a stenographer. When the readers/listeners/viewers are clamoring to know the whole story right now, take your time and give them one that’s right.

  • kcmarshall

    This is an interesting flip-side to yesterday’s discussion of journalism around the FBI planes story. Here we see the “stick” (possibly) being applied to media orgs that (possibly) didn’t proceed with due care and perform good journalism. Not a proud moment but a healthy exercise that differentiates good journalism from Internet message boards.