By: Bill Gloede
Our Editor Says Individual’s Rights Are Paramount
The tragic death by his own hand of Joel Rose in Cleveland after
he was named by The Plain Dealer as a suspect in a sex
case is just the latest example of how a flawed and failed
newsroom policy can lead to disaster. A man who was never charged
with or arrested for a crime is dead, and a newspaper has damaged
its relationship with its readers, perhaps irreparably. The sad
fact is that this never needed to happen. Rose should not have
My purpose here is not to bash The Plain Dealer, where I
believe the staff is suffering greatly over what happened. I
believe that nobody at the paper intended to hurt Rose. But I do
believe that the staff at the paper was misguided by a pair of
beliefs that may be quite popular in much of the culture but that
have no basis whatsoever in the U.S. Constitution, the nation’s
system of justice, or in the proper practice of journalism.
First among these is that the rights of the group trump the
rights of the individual. Not so. The predisposition of many in
the society toward collectivism aside, the Constitution was
written to guarantee a person’s rights against the tyranny of a
majority (remember, the country was founded by people who were
fleeing religious persecution).
The journalists in Cleveland may have thought they were
protecting the rights of the women to whom sexually oriented
material was being mailed by exposing Rose as a possible
perpetrator, but what they were doing was trouncing the rights of
Rose. It may have been easier for The Plain Dealer to
identify Rose since he was a TV personality and a radio talk-show
host, which made him a public figure. But whether or not a
newspaper would be subject to a libel judgment should not be the
criterion upon which such a decision is made.
Second among these beliefs is that it is the job of the press to
right wrongs. Again, not so. It is the job of the press to police
the police and the prosecutor and societal institutions in
general, but it is not to police the public. The press may expose
facts that indicate wrongdoing, but since the press may neither
indict nor arrest, it also may not convict or punish. But
exposing someone who may or may not have committed a crime is a
form of punishment.
The notion that the public is somehow better protected against
potential crime when a suspect is named is, I believe, a canard.
The difference between reporting that a dangerous suspect is on
the loose and that John Doe, a dangerous suspect, is on the loose
is virtually nil since most people do not know who John Doe is in
the first place.
Unfortunately, there are journalists who – through
inexperience, a twisted sense of cop worship, or just plain
dimwittedness – will take what the police give them and run
with it. Editors and publishers should make sure they have
newsroom policies that, at the very least, make it clear that a
suspect’s name must appear on some official document, such as a
search warrant, before the name gets in the paper.
A newspaper should never allow its news columns to be used by the
police to help flush out suspects. It is not the function of the
newspaper to help the police.
When a suspect is well-known, the issue becomes murkier. It is
extremely unlikely that a well-known person will commit a crime
while he or she is being investigated. Since the exposure of the
person’s name would therefore not serve to protect anyone, the
only reason for running a noted suspect’s name is that the
suspect’s name is noted.
That’s voyeurism, not journalism. An exception here would be
someone who is so powerful that they could shut down a police
investigation, but that would change the story from “John Doe,
Public Figure Is a Suspect” to “John Doe, Public Figure, Quashes
Investigation.” The latter is a much better story.
Undoubtedly, there have been instances where the naming of a
suspect in a newspaper turned out to save a life or protect
someone from potential harm. The belief that maybe naming a
suspect will accomplish some good does not justify the risk of
taking away an innocent person’s good name.
The way I see it, if the cops haven’t found enough facts to
arrest a suspect, then the newspaper lacks the facts to name the
suspect. If the cops can’t protect the public, then the newspaper
should name the cops.
And a citizen, whether a factory worker or a football star, is
entitled to retain his or her good name until a judge and jury
take it away. That’s the American way.
Bill Gloede (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the group editor
of E&P and its sister magazine, Mediaweek.
Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.