Journalism goes on trial in defamation case of man falsely accused

Ryan Larson, an innocent man falsely portrayed as the likely killer of a Cold Spring police officer, gets his day in court this week.

He’s suing news organizations who were far too quick to identify him as a suspect in the 2012 slaying of officer Tom Decker, who was shot to death after he’d made a wellness check on Larson.

Larson didn’t do it but when the city’s police chief identified Larson during a news conference the morning of the killing, news organizations were quick to drop their policies against naming suspects until they are charged, policies which many news organizations put in place precisely for this reason.

Larson has settled out of court with some area news organizations, but he’s taking the Gannett company and two of its partners — KARE 11 TV and the St. Cloud Times — to court in a defamation case.

They counter that they’re protected because they were only repeating what they were told.

“This is a big deal in terms of how the courts will interpret the boundaries of the privilege and how strongly its protection should be applied,” Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis attorney who had initially helped the media outlets, told the Associated Press. “There’s certainly a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”

“Defendants’ reporters did more than report facts from law enforcement,” Larson’s attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, wrote in a court filing. “They invented their own version of the facts that fit with the story they wanted to broadcast and publish about Larson.”

It may well turn out that the news organizations are found to be not liable for merely passing on what they were told. On the other hand, it should spark a conversation about whether journalists have an obligation to be something more than stenographers.

“The consequences would be less information about crimes, criminals and law enforcement getting out to the public,” Anfinson tells the Star Tribune. “If the media aren’t able to [provide information] except on a significantly time-delayed basis, that’s not a problem for the media. That’s a problem for the general public.”

Not that much of a problem because most — or at least, many — ethical news organizations already have policies in place that require them to wait until charges are filed in court against a suspect before identifying the person charged.

That’s a policy that often gives way to some news organizations’ cravings to be first, even if it’s to be first with bad information.

The county prosecutor refused to charge Larson after his arrest and after Larson’s apartment was tossed by the cops. Why? There was no evidence he did it. That’s more than a technicality.

According to briefs filed in the case that’s going to trial against the news media, Ryan dropped out of school and had to leave Cold Spring.

It didn’t have to be that way.

But it is that way because reporters embraced a narrative without stopping to consider a single possibility: that Ryan Larson is an innocent man and innocent people deserve protection from the people with pitchforks.

Archive: Time for an apology for Ryan Larson (NewsCut)