Reporters get ethics, law wrong in vacated murder sentence

Editor’s note: This is a preview of a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

When Ryan Ferguson was released from prison Nov. 12 where he had been serving time for the murder of a newspaper sports editor, television journalists from across the country swooped down on Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.

The big story provided a teaching moment for one professor, concerned about accuracy, media ethics and the appearance of objectivity. A lesson was to be learned, too, about convergence, and how an event can be transformed or amplified by the various forms of media buzzing around it.

Ferguson’s release prompted live television coverage that showed reporters hugging members of his family, Internet postings and blog entries containing inaccuracies, and Twitter-fed debates over whether journalists should be cheerleaders. On national television, a network legal affairs correspondent misinterpreted a Missouri court opinion.

“I was appalled really at the media circus that went on after Ryan was released,” said Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. “It just made me feel cynical about our profession.”

Ferguson spent nearly 10 years behind bars for the murder of Kent Heitholt, a Tribune sports editor who was found strangled and beaten in the newspaper’s parking lot on Nov. 1, 2001.

Hoping a new media sensitivity might emerge from the Newtown tragedy

Editor’s note: This is a preview of a story that appears in the winter 2014 print edition of Gateway Journalism Review.

Soon after tragedy struck a sleepy New England town more than one year ago, residents of Newtown, Ct., vowed the place they called home would be an epicenter for change. There needed to be changes in gun laws, some cried out. Others advocated for a national movement to increase school security. A need for better mental health counseling became a topic of conversation in homes and coffee shops among the town’s 26,000 residents.

More subtle and in the undertones, there also were pleas for Newtown to be the epicenter of change in how stories of mass shootings and grief are covered.

Just as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has generated discussion about gun laws and school safety, how the tragedy was covered should also be a topic of discussion and review among media outlets, journalism organizations and in academia. There are so many lessons to learn in how journalists can still do their job while maintaining decency, credibility and sensitivity, but the year following the tragedy has shown there is little interest in the topic. So while there should be a Newtown effect in journalism, that sadly has not been the case.

There were no mea culpas about the inaccurate reporting that occurred as the Sandy Hook story was unfolding. It was reported the shooter was a parent of a kindergarten student. He was not. It was reported the killer’s mother was a teacher at the school. She was not. The killer was misidentified. It was reported the killer once attended the school, but lived in New Jersey with his father. Only one part of that report was correct. Those are just a few of the inaccuracies reported as fact. Connecticut State Police did not have an official press conference for nearly six hours after the shooting, so reporters on the scene were fed information from their collective newsrooms and social media. Without confirmation, those tidbits were presented as gospel until the newest tidbit of information was presented. No one apologized for the misinformation.

A similar scenario was repeated five months later at the Boston Marathon bombing. The need for speed outweighed the importance of accuracy. Clearly, nothing was learned from Newtown.

Convoluted story’s tragic ending reminds journalists to be human

The problems with Caleb Hannan’s article, titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” started almost immediately: “Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you’re battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.”

That’s Hannan’s lead. The story he wrote about Essay Anne Vanderbilt proved to be strange, at the very least. It also was convoluted. Broken down to its pieces, the story was about a putter and the woman who invented it. It also was about Hannan’s quest to find the backstory of the inventor who lied to Hannan about her credentials. Finally, the story became about his search to uncover Vanderbilt’s misrepresentations. As Hannan delved deeper into the story, he uncovered the fact that Vanderbilt used to be a man. He wrote that “a chill actually ran up my spine” at that moment.

This news became the focus of his piece, accompanied by some rough editing (either by mistake or on purpose) that kept switching genders on Vanderbilt. It also contributed, at the very least indirectly, to Vanderbilt’s suicide – a fact Hannan placed at the end of his story.

Reaction to the story was slow, with many initially praising Hannan’s reporting, but it didn’t take long for the reaction to change. Readers were appalled that Hannan was so insensitive toward the issue of transsexuality. Gawker wrote about it; the Guardian wrote about it, too. Eventually, ESPN’s Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland, apologized for the thoughtlessness of the story.

Most piled on and reported about the inherent problems of the article. Hannan became too intent on the sexuality issue and lost track of his original story. He also outed Vanderbilt, an act that was wrong on many levels. Hannan lost all form of compassion in his search for the truth of the story. Finding the truth is important for journalists; it’s the root of all of our jobs. But sometimes the truth is nuanced – and Hannan never looked for that. He treated Vanderbilt’s sex change as the biggest lie in a story of lies. He didn’t understand the situation – and, therefore, hurt this woman irreparably. The early reviews concentrated on the reporting and Hannan’s unending search into the truth.

But didn’t he have a responsibility to Vanderbilt?

After all, from the beginning she agreed to do a story that was focused on the science and not the scientist. He also wrote that, even though Vanderbilt’s credentials didn’t check out, physicists said the science was sound. Yes, he had a responsibility to fact-check his work; if he didn’t nail down the discrepancies in her story, he would have been accused of shoddy reporting. But when he found the truth, Hannan’s responsibilities changed. He didn’t live up to those responsibilities.

Instead, he outed Vanderbilt.

Reporters have a responsibility to the truth. That responsibility leads to uncomfortable moments. Journalists also have a responsibility to their story. Hannan’s story was about a putter. It also was about the false credentials used by the inventor of the putter. Vanderbilt’s sexuality didn’t need to be part of the story. At the very least, it didn’t deserve to be Hannan’s “Eureka!” moment.

Truthfully, the story still doesn’t have an ending. Although Hannan states that he stopped using the putter, was the science sound? Was the putter worth using?

He never told us that. Instead, we learned a lesson on insensitivity – and we were served a reminder that journalists need to be more than just dogged reporters. We have to be human, too.

Pointing and clicking is not enough

AFP photographer Emmanuel Dunard’s photo of a praying Aline Marie at a Newtown, Conn., church brings up an issue where many photojournalists and members of the public disagree.

Marie considered her praying outside the St. Rose of Lima church on the night of the shootings to be a private moment. She says she “felt like a zoo animal” when she realized that a number of photographers from across the nation and world were photographing her.

In this and other similar circumstances, photojournalists often seem to think that a good photo trumps a person’s privacy. Accordingly, they often hide behind the “I’m shooting from a public space” rationale to justify their actions. But the “public space” position is a legal argument – and one that most members of the public either do not understand or with which they disagree.

The “privacy” issue is, for most people, one that has little to do with the law.  Rather, people tend to think that their private activities – whether or not they happen to take place in or near a public place where photojournalists might congregate – are simply that: private activities.

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Members of the public – what First Amendment cases refer to as “private” rather than “public” individuals – simply see it as the decent thing to do for a photojournalist to ask to photograph, or use/publish an already taken image. Photojournalists employing such sensitivity generally tend to discover that private individuals are grateful to have been asked and gladly grant permission.

Few photojournalism ethics codes and policies require or encourage photographers to get permission from members of the public before publishing their images. Were such policies encouraged, they would make the professional lives of photojournalists more difficult. But the end result would be a public feeling better about its media. And such an outcome would justify the few extra minutes of time a photojournalist would take on an assignment.


Controversial subway photo sparks moral debate

Is an American photojournalist embedded with U.S. troops in a war zone first and foremost a journalist or an American? Is it clear-cut? Ever? How does one decide?

Ah, questions, questions.

But what about being a photojournalist or a human

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being? And what about running a page-one photo of a man about to be run over by a subway train? These questions would seem much easier to answer. And when R. Ulmar Abbasi focused his energies on getting a dramatic photo rather than seriously attempting to save Ki Suk Han from being run over by a subway, and when the New York Post ran Abbasi’s photo, both the photojournalist and the paper were exposed as being inhuman. But in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Abbasi defended himself, saying he could not have reached the victim in time.

What do you think?