Friday, February 13, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Pink Sex Offenders

By Megan Gorey

I believe there are unwritten laws in the universe. For example, if you take an umbrella, it won’t rain. But the day you forget your umbrella, it will downpour. Much like a broader version of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. These laws are no exception in journalism.

Murphy's "Record Law"
I know that staring into the dark abyss of the camera lens is intimidating. Even as journalists when we have to do one-man-band stand-ups or live newsroom feeds in front of the camera, we feel awkward staring into the blankness. It feels impersonal and empty. But, we learn little tricks to make it more bearable and to make it seem as if we’re looking right at you, the viewer.

What I have quickly found in this industry though is that as soon as you turn off that red record button, people just start talking! It’s as if they know that you are no longer capturing the great ideas, facts, and quotes they are giving you. For a journalist, it can be heartbreaking. You can’t exactly scramble to suddenly find a notebook and frantically write down what they just said because it would be just as obvious as if you were recording it. Of course, you could always ask the person to repeat what they just said so you can get it on tape, but it loses its genuine, raw emotion.

When we’re looking for a quote or “sound bite,” we are looking for the interviewee to say something that we couldn’t say ourselves. We’re looking for the passionate, personal, and even outrageous things people say. It’s those types of comments and quotes that make our stories come to life and make them personal. It is what every journalist thrives to evoke during an interview.

Athens Sex Offenders
When Athens MidDay reporters first covered the story about the registered sex offenders living within 1000 feet local schools, I was shocked. First, because after looking on sites such as FamilyWatchDog I was disturbed to find out how many sex offenders live in the Athens area. Second, how these offenders had flown under the radar and lived that closely to schools. Even though I don’t have children, I still felt slightly panicked.

I did an interview with Athens County Auditor, Jill A. Thompson on Monday. The interview started as her reaction to the press release and the amount of information that was incorrect in the release. Thompson’s office was working closely with the Athens County Prosecutor in the investigation and she “commended the Prosecutor for taking this initiative” in the manner.

Auditor Jill Thompson explains why information was incorrect

But as the interview progressed, the attention turned toward the way that the county actually measures the distance between offender’s homes and the nearest school. One of the reasons that some of the information was incorrect in the release was because some of the school properties had been sold but the parcels were not transferred in the county records.

A Thousand Feet

Ohio's Sex Offenders Registration and Notification Law (SORN) prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school. However, there are different definitions and laws for pre-schools and day cares. The area that is labeled as a 'school' is not just based on the property, but also the criterion that qualifies it as a school, Thompson explained.

A thousand feet? That’s it?

With all of the horror stories surrounding Caylee Anthony and now an Amber Alert for 5 year old Haleigh Cummings, it is apparent now more than ever you can never take too many precautions to protect your children and to me, a thousand feet does not seem like enough. According to FamilyWatchDog, at least one in three Ohio schools has a registered sex offender living within the thousand foot radius. In Ohio alone there are 26,765 registered sex offenders, according to FamilyWatchDog’s website and official state registries. Even writing this blog now, I’m disturbed and upset looking at the numbers.

Tape Measures
Thompson says that the first way to measure the distance from schools is to actually visit the site to verify that it’s still a school and to double check information about the area. But the auditor’s office has been using an internal measurement system, Location Based Response System (LBRS) which is a system to transfer property names faster and will make it easier for government officials to correct mistakes more efficiently. After further installation, the address tool will also help make measuring distances more accurate.

Thompson herself seemed upset and worried about the growing concern of sex offenders in the Athens community. She expressed that even though some of the information may have been incorrect, “it’s a useful tool. I think it’s important for people to know where (sex offenders) live and reside, especially if you have children.”

Auditor Jill Thompson speaks about being receiving sex offender notifications

A resident of the Plains, Thompson says she receives updates and notifications on her cell phone so that she can stay up-to-date to protect her children. Websites such as FamilyWatchDog have a registration system so you too can receive information about sex offenders in your area to your cell phone or other mobile devices.

Cut! That's a Wrap.
Just as I shut off the camera and started to pack away my microphone, Thompson opened up. I guess it’s the equivalent to being “off the record” so people feel more comfortable to really voice what they are feeling.

I got the feeling from the tone in her voice that her passion about the issue didn’t just come from being a county auditor, but from being a mother.

She explained how frustrated she is about there being no laws requiring sex offenders to identify themselves to a community. “We make drunk drivers have special licenses plates, why can’t sex offenders?” asked a frustrated Thompson. She explained that she had brought up this issue many times before but no one seems to jump on the ban wagon.

To me, it just made sense. When you see a car with “party plates” on the highway late at night, you tend to switch lanes - to put distance between you and that other car - to protect yourself. Why wouldn’t you do the same when you saw a sex offender license plate parked near a school or playground?

Pretty in Pink
Although the Ohio Department of Public Safety hasn’t actually passed any laws enforcing sex offenders to have special plates on their cars, perhaps it deserves another look. Personally, I’m surprised that more people haven’t supported the bill that these offenders deserve the color pink, the suggested plate color.

Thompson even suggested the idea of making offenders post signs on the door of their houses to make it visible to other community members. I agree with Thompson that the most important thing that parents in the areas can do is be informed. So, even if some of the information from the press release wasn’t 100% accurate, it still raised some awareness and some eyebrows about who may be living in our neighborhoods.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hitler used pink to identify sex offenders before he put them to death. I am not quite sure at what point societies bloodlust will be satisfied.
I personally would like to know if a murderer lived next door so I could avoid them, but apparently they can do their time and not be tormented for life.
I know, "It's for the children"
That slogan will get you elected, and let the Government wipe their rear ends with the Constitution.
Only when it comes to roost in their own families does it come to roost. Then the people wail in vain against the laws they held so dear.