As displayed by this week’s letters to the editor section, emotions are running high regarding last week’s story on the Miranda Wilkerson custody case, and that’s understandable considering the involvement of Donald Coleman, a registered sex offender now responsible for the 4-year-old girl’s well-being.
Let me take this opportunity, however, to respond to some of the criticisms and questions posed in the letters published this week.
Our goal was certainly not to portray Rita Manning, Miranda’s paternal grandmother, as “the good guy” or “the bad guy,” or to defend or assail Circuit Judge Phyllis Rosier’s decision to award custody to Mr. Coleman.
Rather, with extensive coverage of the case by First Coast News for nearly a week before last week’s edition was published, we hoped to offer readers information that might help to answer the question on everyone’s mind: Why did the judge rule the way she did?
In most cases, a judge will explain his or her decisions in writing and those records are open to review by the media and everyone else. In this case, however, the court files were not open to public inspection, the judge had not spoken publicly about the case and reporters were barred from entering the courtroom during a hearing that followed the custody decision. Thus, we had to rely on other court records and comments from those present at the protest July 18, all of which were reflected in last week’s edition.
Information regarding Ms. Manning’s criminal history was reported immediately following the details of Mr. Coleman’s criminal history. If there’s any bias there, it’s in Ms. Manning’s favor. As the prevailing wisdom goes, the further down in the story something’s presented, the less likely it is to be read.
Civil court records were also reviewed by The Press from Baker and Duval counties. The only relevant civil records we found pertained to the probate case of Trista Coleman, Mr. Coleman’s late wife and Miranda’s biological mother.
Given the likelihood of future fund raising activities to support the paternal family’s fight to reverse the judge’s action, we believed that evidence of a 2007 fund raiser organized by members of the same family for Trista Coleman’s funeral expenses, and the fact the funeral bill was not paid, were germane to the story, albeit not the central narrative.
We attempted to contact Ms. Manning to give her an opportunity to respond to the funeral home director’s comments and records reflecting the unpaid bill. A message left with her daughter, Rebecca Graves, was not returned. So, all that was included in the story was the explanation provided by Ms. Manning in a letter to the judge in the probate case.
The story’s lead, headline and photo all demonstrate the central narrative — that protests were continuing against the judge’s decision and the paternal family remained committed to returning Miranda to their custody. The rest of the story was background information intended to present context to readers about the people involved in the story, including Miranda and her three older sisters.
The story did, in fact, point out who took part in the protest, both visually with the photo and in the story itself. It was clear only about a dozen people protested. Had an elected official been present, that would’ve been noted too. Our role is not to pass judgement on who showed up and who didn’t. That’s for readers to ponder.
It may help to think of The Press as largely a mirror. We attempt to reflect as accurately as we can what’s happening locally, not necessarily whether what’s happening is right, wrong or morally grey.
We save such sentiments for the opinion page.