SHOULD NEWSPAPERS NAME SUSPECTS?

By: Joe Strupp

Editors Often Face a Nightmare Choice





To many in the small town of Whitewater, Wis., Mark Brown was a
hero. He was the football coach who led the local high school to
the conference championship during his first season in 1999.



But when the nearby Janesville (Wis.) Gazette hit
the newsstands June 1, Brown’s image and reputation changed
forever. There, on the local section front, was a picture of the
35-year-old coach and business teacher accompanying a story about
how he had been placed on administrative leave. The article,
which included his home address, never explained why Brown had
been put on leave, but hinted that it might have been because of
“allegations” of some kind.



Later reporting revealed that Brown had been under investigation
for an alleged sexual affair with a student, a felony under
Wisconsin law. As the case evolved over the next few weeks –
with Brown resigning June 8 and having his teaching license
revoked July 11 – the Gazette kept close tabs on the
story, reporting each and every turn.



It didn’t matter to editors that Brown had never been arrested
and that formal charges had never been filed. The only concern
was keeping up with the story. “We used his name many times,
because it was of community interest,” says Scott Angus, the
Gazette’s editor. “It had a lot to do with his position as
a teacher.”



Eventually, the Gazette even editorialized against the
nonarrest of Brown, arguing that although he’d lost his job and
credentials, his actions deserved full prosecution. “This was a
tough one because we wanted to balance it,” Angus says. “But it
was newsworthy, and we did what we had to do to present the
information.”



The Brown case is nothing new in the realm of daily newspapering.
Since printers first put words together with ink-stained hands
and hot lead, editors have been forced to walk the tightrope
between when to name those accused of crimes and when to hold
off. In recent years, however, as papers have faced more
competition from broadcast and Internet outlets, the pressure to
beat competitors and get the most up-to-date information on a
case has intensified, causing many editors to dangle suspects’
names prior to arrests or official confirmation.



At the same time, the newspaper industry as a whole is battling a
national credibility problem, according to numerous recent
surveys, forcing some newsroom leaders to think twice before
jumping the gun on a suspect’s identity. “It’s more important
than ever that newspapers be beacons of fairness,” says David
Yarnold, executive editor of the San Jose (Calif.)
Mercury News, who notes his paper does not name suspects
until “official action is taken. … Situations arise all the
time that challenge [the policy], but we stick by it.”



Naming conventions



If you’re looking for guidance in the ethical dilemma of when to
name a suspect, the right direction is hard to find. Most
newspaper veterans and observers say the decision needs to be
based on the circumstances of the moment: who is accused, how
many people are affected, and how “on-the-record” law enforcement
is willing to be.



“It’s a tough problem,” says Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate
School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
“You hate to see the press’ investigative energies chilled, but
people do get tried in the press. You have to make a painful
effort not to report just an alleged crime. People should be
viewed as innocent until proven guilty.”



Keith Woods, an ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute for
Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., also advises caution, but
admits that each case is different. “If a mayor is being
investigated for corruption, his ability to serve the public is
affected,” Woods says. “If a radio personality is being
investigated, the public may want to know, but I don’t know if
they have to.”



The issue of when to name someone as a suspect or “under
investigation” has received more focus since the 1996 Olympic
Games bombing in Atlanta in which Richard Jewell was named by the
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others, as the lead
suspect in the case – but he was neither arrested nor
charged and later was publicly exonerated.



In the past year, media handling of suspects came under new
scrutiny when The New York Times published an unusual and
lengthy editor’s note criticizing its own coverage of Wen Ho Lee,
the Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory scientist accused of
stealing nuclear-weapons secrets. Attention also heightened in
August after The Plain Dealer in Cleveland named Joel
Rose, a local TV and radio personality, as the key suspect in a
sexual stalking case. Rose, who was not charged, killed himself
the same day a story on the investigation ran on Page One of
The Plain Dealer. “It was a prominent person in the
community and there was a possibility of more victims coming
forward because of this,” says Plain Dealer Editor Doug
Clifton. “I feel confident in what we did.”



The issue also arose for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.,
during its coverage of the fatal dormitory fire at Seton Hall
University in January, but with a different result. Although
reporter Guy Sterling claims to know the identities of several
students suspected by investigators of starting the fire, he has
not named them – and no arrests have been made.



“We proceed with extra caution because of the danger that can be
done,” says David Tucker, Star-Ledger assistant managing
editor for news. “You have to weigh [the naming of suspects]
against serving the public good.”



Murder, they wrote



The stabbing murder of 8-year-old Kevin Shifflett remains one of
the most heinous crimes ever to occur in Alexandria, Va. Almost
immediately after the brutal April 19 slaying, local residents
clamored for justice, while also demanding that police protect
their kids from Kevin’s killer.



No news outlet covered the story closer than The Washington
Post, which used its sources to dig up and report information
as the case unfolded almost daily over the summer. When police
began focusing on a local 29-year-old man as a suspect, the
Post reported that, too, in a July 4 story – but did
not include the man’s name. It wasn’t until July 27, when
Post reporters saw the suspect’s name on a search warrant,
that they revealed his identity to readers.



“It was a public document that police were in court with and that
affords you some legal protection,” says Jo-Anne Armao,
Post assistant managing editor for metro, who says the
paper’s policy is not to identify suspects until they are named
by police “in some fashion.” The suspect, Gregory D. Murphy,
eventually was arrested and charged in the murder, and now awaits
trial.



Post editors say withholding his identity for nearly a
month did not hurt their ability to report the story. “We were
able to write an awful lot about him, but did not name him,” says
Leonard Downie Jr., Post executive editor. “We were able
to inform readers, but also be fair to him.”



At the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Editor John Craig faced a
similar scenario involving a less serious crime, but a more
public figure. When a Post-Gazette reporter learned last
year through confidential sources that state Rep. Frank Gigliotti
was being investigated by the FBI for allegedly taking bribes,
Craig did not hesitate to run the story and name the legislator
as a suspect.



“You are in the news business, not the waiting business,” says
Craig, a 22-year Post-Gazette veteran. “Our vocation is to
tell the news.”



While the FBI would not publicly acknowledge the investigation,
the Post-Gazette ran stories chronicling the allegations,
with the requirement that at least two sources confirm the
information. The reporting paid off when Gigliotti pled guilty to
extortion and tax fraud, receiving a 46-month sentence in June.
“The job of the paper is to print stories that are true,” says
Craig. “You can’t worry about what anyone will do.”



Name your poison



Editors at some of the nation’s top newspapers find little
agreement on when to name suspects. While most editors agree that
naming a suspect only after he or she has been cited by official
sources or after an arrest or indictment is best, many disagree
over when to name one using off-the-record sources.



“Nothing is ever hard-and-fast in our business, but we do not
name suspects until and unless they are charged,” proclaims
Stuart Wilk, managing editor of The Dallas Morning News.
“Each case has to be weighed on its own merits.”



Wilk says editors deviated from the policy on one occasion last
year, which came back to bite them. When Dallas Cowboys wide
receiver Michael Irvin was named by police as a suspect in a drug
case, but not charged, the Morning News went along with
other local media in reporting the story.



After Irvin was cleared, Wilk says the paper took a hit. “If it
happened again, we would have no choice but to do it again,” Wilk
admits, citing Irvin’s status as a public figure. “I don’t know
how you would not name him.”



Frank Scandale, assistant managing editor for news at The
Denver Post, says the question of how well-known the suspect
is plays a part in the decision. He cited a recent case of a
local Baptist minister being investigated for alleged sexual
harassment of a parishioner. Although the Post knew the
man’s identity, Scandale says they did not name him in the paper
and he was never charged.



“We knew that if we named him, it would be all over for him,”
Scandale says. “Police are not infallible. Just because they are
looking at someone does not mean they are guilty.”



A similar case drew the attention of The Salt Lake Tribune
in 1999 when a church usher was accused of molesting a teen-age
boy. Although the man was arrested, the paper chose to hold off
on a story until charges were filed. When the district attorney’s
office dropped the case, editors knew it was the right move.



“If we had printed his name, that would have been an explosive
charge,” says James “Jay” Shelledy, Tribune editor. “No
matter what, he would have been known as a child molester.”



Like most ethical questions newspaper editors ponder daily, the
decision over when and how to identify a suspect will likely
remain a subjective one based on the elements of each individual
case – along with news judgment and legal fears.







Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is an associate editor for E&P.







Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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