Clark Hoyt examines the troubling practice of identifying “persons of interest”– people such as Steven J. Hatfill, Richard Jewell, Gary Condit, and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey. He asks a good question:
In reporting on a major criminal investigation, how do you balance the interests of the public in knowing as much as possible with the rights of individuals who come under suspicion, especially when the information comes from sources — often anonymous — whose motives aren’t clear?
The beginning of an answer is right there in the question. I call it meta-reporting, which is reporting about reporting as a normal routine of reporting.
Let’s set aside as obvious the suggestion that if law enforcement is unwilling to go on the record with a name then the press ought not to go public with it either.
The purpose of meta-reporting is to give readers the fullest account of a news situation. And that includes the fact that journalism is always a player–never just a passive observer–in any news situation. So how a reporter reports (and an editor edits) should be a routine part of much journalism.
For example in this case: When faced with an anonymous law enforcement source pushing a person of interest, report the push (and reason) but not the name, and remind readers how often in recent years law enforcement has gotten it wrong and journalism has enabled it. Reportable facts all.
Consider this from Hoyt:
In the cases of the Ramseys, Condit and Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly suspected in the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, it appears that much of the damage was done when reporters took leaks from anonymous official sources and ran them uncritically, creating what Wood, the lawyer, called “an unholy alliance between the media and law enforcement” to prosecute in the press.
Key word: “uncritically.” Meta-reporting is a critical practice that could help expose unholy alliances by demanding that journalists understand themselves as players who should routinely report their role as players.