Newspapers’ Championing of Causes Leaves Readers in the Lurch

In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reporter John Diedrich’s story Felons’ Helpful Kin Get a Pass continues down the newspaper’s path of trumpeting specific issues in the hopes of winning journalistic awards. This hunt for professional accolades, however, leaves readers with the impression that a proposed new state law will only affect hardcore felons.

In all actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.

While most citizens of Wisconsin want to see those assisting murderers, robbers, and rapists by concealing or destroying evidence held accountable, the article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fails to explain how this new law could unknowingly ensnarl family members for relatively minor offenses.

Here is one hypothetical example.

Two fictional parents, John and Betty Smith, residing in southeastern Wisconsin, take a four-day trip to Door County.  The Smiths leave behind their 17-year-old son, Matthew, to work a weekend part-time job.

When John Smith returns on Monday night, he goes into the basement to refill the water softener.  Behind a washbasin, John Smith observes an empty quart bottle of vodka; however, the rest of the basement looks in order. 

Now, John Smith was once a teenager, too.  He realizes that his son, Matthew, may have had some friends over and that underage drinking may have taken place in his basement. John confronts Matthew, who, of course, denies he knows anything about the vodka bottle. Realizing he will likely never get to the bottom of the matter, John Smith tosses the empty bottle of vodka in the garbage.

The garbage crew then stops by on Tuesday morning and picks-up the weekly trash.

On Tuesday night, a police officer knocks on John Smith’s door. The officer informs Mr. Smith that a parent of a 16-year-old girl called to complain that their daughter came home intoxicated after allegedly drinking at the Smith residence on Saturday night.  The officer asks Mr. Smith if he was aware that a possible party took place at his residence over the past weekend and that alcohol was involved.

Like 95 percent of most Americans, Mr. Smith has very little knowledge of the law and/or the criminal justice system. As such, Mr. Smith tells the officer that he and his wife were out of town for the weekend, but, when he returned last night, he did find an empty bottle of vodka in the basement.  Mr. Smith further tells the officer that he believed his son, who is 17, might have had some friends over to partake in drink. 

The officer then asks Mr. Smith what he did with the bottle of vodka.  Smith explains that, after confronting his son, who denied any wrongdoing, he tossed the bottle in the garbage.

The officer then explains to Mr. Smith that he destroyed evidence of a crime. Mr. Smith is then arrested and charged by the DA’s office.

Under the aforementioned law proposed in the legislature, and championed by a reporter from the newspaper, this scenario is not a reach. 

Of course, readers of the newspaper are left with the impression that this new law will only target felons.  And why wouldn’t they?  After all, Mr. Diedrich’s article fails to explain the intricacies of the proposed law.

Unfortunately, this is what occurs when journalists attempt to make news instead of simply reporting the news.  Which is why the old adage, ‘Don’t believe everything you read,’ retains its relevance.


Steve Spingola is an author and retired Milwaukee Police Department homicide detective.

If your organization is in need of a fascinating guest speaker, consider the Spingola Files presentation The Psychology of Homicide.  For more information, visit

© Steven Spingola, Wales, WI, 2011

2 Responses

  1. Skeeter

    Interesting stuff. It seems the truth is very illusive over at the JS. Gimme, gimme, gimme my Pultizer.

    June 13, 2011 at 12:05 am

  2. Patty Doherty

    When I was 18 the drinking age was 18 and my mom let me have beer at my high school graduation party (knowing that some of my friends were still 17). Looking back now, I realize that she could have gotten in a lot of trouble.

    July 10, 2013 at 8:00 pm

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