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Bill Macfadyen: How We Came to Publish ‘The Names’

There was plenty of speculation, but much more to the story than what you read

The Tea Fire was still raging out of control when investigators began gathering evidence of the source and circumstances of its origin. Speculation sparked almost as quickly as the blaze. No sooner had authorities quelled the flames, then they had to confront accusations by some that powerful interests were hindering justice.

Fortunately, the public safety element was the urgent priority and the official investigation was a methodical search for facts. As it turns out, at least from Noozhawk’s perspective, a rash rush to judgment could have exacerbated the disaster even more so than the emotional toll of 230 homes lost and hundreds of families displaced.

In early December, from various sources, Noozhawk acquired a handful of names that purportedly were those of some of the participants in the ill-fated bonfire set — and believed to be extinguished — the night before the Tea Fire erupted Nov. 13. We did our best to follow up, but soon began to suspect that some of our sources may have been playing a dangerous guessing game. My ardor cooled further after several weeks passed and the other two professional news outfits in Santa Barbara, the Daily Sound and the Independent, which presumably had access to at least some of the same information, didn’t produce stories of their own.

Out in cyberspace, including the part Noozhawk occupies, there was no shortage of “informed” theories implicating — in rough order of appearance — Westmont College, Santa Barbara’s “Anglo elite,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, investigators, prosecutors, District Attorney Christie Stanley and Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see the conspiracy linked to the Pentaverate, the secret society allegedly run by the Queen of England, the Rothschilds, the Gettys, the Vatican and the late Colonel Sanders with his wee beady eyes. Noozhawk was even accused of being part of the problem because we were insufficiently attentive to the community’s need to name names.

After all that, however, when our Lara Cooper showed up at the Courthouse at 9 a.m. Tuesday — the only reporter to do so, I might add — and finally, at long last, got the list of the 10 individuals whose names may well live in infamy here, what I was most interested to discover was that not one of the names pushed on us turned out to be accurate. A couple we knew to be fanciful rumors at the time and one name bore a passing resemblance to one of those facing misdemeanor charges, but for the most part our instincts were correct.

Noozhawk is not afraid to follow the news wherever it leads, but we don’t make a point of tipping our talons at what we’re up to. Further, it was the ethical, prudent and professional thing to do to stand aside and let the official investigation play out. We’re journalists, not law enforcement or the justice system; our operating principals are to report on the news, not make it.

Story comments are story comments, and should be taken for what they are: often emotional snap reactions to what was just read. Some add value and some don’t, and each of you can make your own judgment on their worth. But for those of us who pay a hefty premium for publisher’s liability insurance, there’s a much higher standard to which we must hew. Even on the Internet, which can accommodate continuous updates, we have a duty to get the story right. As I’ve told our reporters repeatedly, it’s not enough to be first, we have to be responsible.

I don’t mean to be insensitive to those who survived the Tea Fire at an unimaginable cost to their lives and well-being. Having lost my own home in a natural disaster, I can relate all too well to the arduous journey to recovery. It’s exhausting, stressful and bewildering, and no matter how well you’re enveloped in faith, love and support, when night comes you’re all alone with the whys and what ifs.

But I do mean to be sensitive to the 10 accused whose tragic mistake — incredibly careless and colossally stupid, but still a mistake — will now follow them, and likely their checkbooks, for the rest of their lives. Who among us does not have something in our past that could have had similarly unforeseen consequences? Not me (sorry, Mom). And I think I’ll just drop the rest of the stones I was about to cast. I’m also sensitive to those who were not involved but could have been had we acquiesced to vocal vigilantes calling for what a multiagency investigation has now concluded would have been false IDs.

Further, I do not see a double standard in the way the names of these 10 individuals came to light relative to that of a teenager accused of taking the life of another teenager. It’s an unfair comparison because, in both cases, the names were released when charges were filed. Just because one investigation takes longer for prosecutors to come to a conclusion does not indicate injustice has been served. But, again, Noozhawk will always strive to err on the side of responsibility rather than haste.

This story is not over and Noozhawk is not through. But I do hope our staff’s professionalism gives you continued confidence in our journalism ethics and practices. We take seriously our role as this community’s online news source. But just because we can publish something, doesn’t always mean we should, or that we will.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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