Journalism ethics in real time

Melissa Bailey
Melissa Bailey

Melissa Bailey, the managing editor of the New Haven Independent, has written a fascinating story for Slate’s Double X on the steps she took to protect the identities of the fiancée and the ex-girlfriend of Raymond Clark, who’s been charged with the murder of Yale University student Annie Le. Bailey writes:

We learned the girlfriend’s identity, as well as the names of Clark and his current fiancee, before their identities were public. This was in the days after Le had disappeared but before her body was found, when slews of national reporters had descended on our city to find clues to the killing. As we chased the story, I wanted to break news — that’s my job. But I also wanted to shield the women caught up in the case from an onslaught of judgment and national attention that would make things harder for them.

Bailey writes about the decision to use material from the women’s Facebook and MySpace pages even while withholding their names. The Independent also withheld Clark’s name until he had been formally charged, even after New Haven police put it in a press release and repeated it at a news conference.

Her essay is an interesting, close-up look at applied journalism ethics. I’m not sure whether I’d have made the same calls as the Independent. But I’m impressed at how much thought went into Bailey’s and editor Paul Bass’ decision-making.

Thinking about the post-newspaper era

Paul Starr
Paul Starr

Princeton University scholar Paul Starr, author of “The Creation of the Media” (2004) as well as a provocative essay in The New Republic earlier this year titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” will speak at Suffolk Law School next Thursday, Oct. 1.

Delivering responses to Starr’s remarks will be Boston Globe editor Marty Baron and me.

Sponsored by the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service and the Ford Hall Forum, the event will take place from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Suffolk University’s Moot Court Room, at 120 Tremont St.

Admission is free, but you do need to sign up in advance. You can simply e-mail an RSVP to Senka Huskic at shuskic {at} suffolk {dot} edu. (Change {at} and {dot} to create a normal-looking e-mail address.)

Hope to see you there.

How meta is this?

Media Nation links to the New Haven Independent’s coverage of the Annie Le murder, noting that the news site refrained from naming the suspect, Raymond Clark, until he had been formally charged. The Independent links back to Media Nation’s commentary on said decision and asks its readers to comment.

Check out the discussion.

Torturing a Cheney photo

cheney_20090917Well-known photojournalist David Hume Kennerly is ripping mad at Newsweek for cropping his photo of Dick Cheney and his family to make it look like the former vice president is picking over the remains of a small animal. (Be sure to click through so that you can see the before and after pictures.)

Appropriately enough (make that inappropriately enough), the photo was used to illustrate something Cheney had said about torture, of which he’s all in favor.

Noting that Newsweek had taken a picture of a warm family scene and cropped it so that it looked like an animal sacrifice, with Cheney as the knife-wielding priest, Kennerly writes:

This radical alteration is photo fakery. Newsweek’s choice to run my picture as a political cartoon not only embarrassed and humiliated me and ridiculed the subject of the picture, but it ultimately denigrated my profession.

Kennerly’s right on target, as the lame response from a Newsweek spokesman makes clear. The photo was tortured into something that it was not. As a result, it’s not journalism, either.

Murder suspect charged — and named

Police in Connecticut this morning finally charged Raymond Clark in connection with the murder of Yale University student Annie Le. And with that, the New Haven Independent — which had refused to identify Clark when he was merely a “person of interest” — has named him and posted a photo.

Earlier: “Ethics, competition and a high-profile murder.”

Audio of panel on journalism and social media

Thanks to four excellent panelists and an interested and engaged audience, we had a great time last night at a discussion titled “Are Blogs and Twitter Improving the Dissemination of Information and News?”

The panel was held at the historic Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill — a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, as I lived less than a block away in 1979-’80.

I’ve posted an MP3 of the discussion. There’s a lot of reverb, and it is difficult to hear members of the audience, who did not use the mic. My apologies. The panelists, in the order in which they spoke, were:

And thanks to Doug Levin, who put together the program.

Paul Bass on (not) naming names

After I posted an item earlier today on the New Haven Independent’s decision not to identify Raymond Clark, the “person of interest” in the murder of Yale University student Annie Le, I invited editor Paul Bass to comment on his decision.

Bass replied by e-mail, telling me that “you’re so right — it’s futile. But we wanted to be consistent.” He added that “we originally broke the story about this suspect. The national media said a student was the suspect. We reported that, no, it was a lab tech, and we gave details that wouldn’t lead the public to be able to find him. We had the name pretty early, and some good info, but decided to go with the basic story.”

In a follow-up e-mail, Bass explained, “We do have quite a strong policy about withholding names. In our routine police stories, we rarely name people (non-public figures) arrested unless there’s a compelling reason, or we’ve gotten their side. We might be wrong, for sure. Lotta back and forth. Maybe a futile high horse thing. Don’t know.”

Ethics, competition and a high-profile murder

Annie Le
Annie Le

A 24-year-old resident of Middletown, Conn., has been detained and identified as a “person of interest” in the murder of Yale University student Annie Le.

Most news outlets, including the New Haven Register and the New York Times, have identified the man as Raymond Clark, a Yale lab technician. Each includes a photo of him in police custody. Yet the New Haven Independent, a non-profit news site, has declined to name him. In a story posted late Monday afternoon, editor Paul Bass wrote:

As of Monday afternoon, police had no suspects in custody in the investigation of graduate student Annie Le’s grisly death, [New Haven Police] Chief James Lewis said.

He told the Independent that his cops have been busy interviewing “and reinterviewing” “lots of people.” The department will not reveal the names of interviewees or “persons of interest,” according to Lewis.

“We don’t want to destroy people’s reputations,” Lewis said.

But Lewis reversed himself once Clark was taken into custody. The New Haven Police Department named Clark in a press release shortly after Clark had been removed from his Middletown apartment. Following Lewis’ news conference Tuesday night, the Independent’s managing editor, Melissa Bailey, wrote:

“We’ve known where he was at all along,” Police Chief James Lewis said at a press conference late Tuesday night at police headquarters. He spoke before a throng of video cameras.

Police named the target of the search, calling him a “person of interest.”

In an accompanying video Bailey shot of Lewis speaking to the media, Clark’s name does not pass from the chief’s lips. In a follow-up posted shortly before midnight, Bailey added: “A prime suspect is a 24-year-old Yale lab tech who until this past week worked at 10 Amistad St. among other locations. His identity was confirmed by officials close to the probe. The Independent is withholding his name.”

There’s certainly a strong case to be made for not naming Clark. Unless he is charged, he is not a suspect in Le’s murder. The possibility exists that an innocent person will have had his reputation permanently smeared.

But though the Independent’s — well, independence — is admirable, it’s also futile. (Which is why I named Clark.) Still, by taking a principled stand, Bass may well earn the respect of his readers. Take, for instance, this comment to the Independent, at the bottom of this story, from “ASDF,” posted Tuesday evening:

This better be the person who did it, because his name is being published at other sites. Thank you for the good sense to not publish his name at this time — ever since the NHPD took the case over, the leaks have been coming out at a pretty fast pace.

I really don’t understand what there is to gain by releasing his name — if you don’t have enough evidence to arrest him, then you don’t have enough evidence to smear him in the media.

Finally, I wonder why Chief Lewis folded as quickly as he did. In less than a day, he went from vowing not to name anyone who hadn’t been charged with the murder to blasting out Clark’s name in a press release.

Maybe he believed his hand had been forced, since Clark’s name was circulating anyway. Maybe he just couldn’t resist. But it strikes me that his first instinct was the one he should have followed.

More: Bass responds.

Rebuilding trust in the media

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at a new Pew survey that shows media credibility is at an all-time low — and consider a few steps that news organizations might take to counteract public distrust.

Talking about journalism and new media

Next Wednesday, Sept. 16, I’ll be moderating an all-star panel on journalism, blogging and social media. Titled “Are Blogs and Twitter Improving the Dissemination of Information and News?,” the panel will feature:

With that many bright minds in the room, I may have to wear shades.

The program will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Vilna Shul, located on Beacon Hill at 18 Phillips St. Please join us.

All-important food-related update: Doug Levin, who’s organizing the event, asks that you send an e-mail to doug {at} vilnashul {dot} com if you’re planning on coming so that he can order enough food. If you’re not looking to eat, you could show up at about 6:45, when the program will begin.