What the Aaron Swartz case teaches us about journalism

It's been almost two months since internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment building. Swartz was under indictment for wire fraud, computer fraud, and "damaging a protected computer" for attempting to download massive amounts of files from JSTOR, an archive of academic journals and papers.  

Swartz was a well-known and popular figure in the digital activism community, and there has been a lot of anger heaped on the prosecutor of his case, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, for what many perceive as prosecutorial overreach. The government wanted to make an example of Swartz, one theory goes, so they trumped up the charges and pressured him to accept a plea deal far out of proportion with the original offense. 

I have no legal expertise, so can't comment on whether the charges constituted an overreach. However, I do think there's something about this case that bears scrutiny — the media's role in the public perception of Swartz's prosecution.

In fact, this is a wider discussion than that. The journalistic convention of breathlessly reporting the maximum allowable sentence in any criminal prosecution needs to change. 

Take this simple sentence from Boston Globe reporter Milton Valencia's 2011 article on Swartz's arrest:

He faces up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

There are two facts in that sentence, and both are correct. It is accurate and journalistically sound and totally misleading. It is the focus of rage and acrimony on Reddit and other discussion sites, not to mention the comments section of every media outlet who reported on the Swartz case. 

Nobody in the prosecutor's office, the defense's office, or at the Boston Globe realistically believed that Swartz would receive the maximum sentence, but what about the average reader? The average reader assumes a strong likelihood that Swartz would, in fact, receive the worst. Because it is the only option presented. 

This bothered me when I was a reporter. Every time I wrote about criminal charges, I was instructed to include the maximum sentence for the charge, since it was the only verifiable fact we had. But why would the conventions of journalism have us assume the reader has only a 9th grade reading level (no big words! no complex sentences!) yet a far more sophisticated understanding of the nature of criminal prosecutions? Because that's what you would need to understand the difference between "he faces 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine" and "he faces 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine, but there will likely be two years of pre-trial motions, plea bargain negotiations, and political posturing before the government finally accepts a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence far less onerous than the maximum allowable." 

Of course a straight-news journalist can't speculate on the future, so he or she would need to weasel around a bit. Perhaps quoting experts on the likely outcome — expert commentary is the standard way for reporters to voice their opinions anyway, and might give the reader a deeper understanding of the machinations at work.  Perhaps we need a web app where we can plug in the charges and other vital information, and the app compares that to a database of similar cases to spit out the most likely outcome. Whatever the solution is, the problem is journalism's bias toward facts regardless of context. 

The job of journalism is not to report the facts. The job of journalism is to report the truth.