Saunders: The 24/7 news cycle should slow when justice is at stake

barry.saunders@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

Why that father didn’t punch me in the nose I’ll never understand.

The body of his daughter, in her early 20s, had just been discovered in her car’s trunk, and while he was trying to deal with his grief, he also had to deal with me – an overzealous, seemingly insensitive newspaper reporter.

I was sensitive, all right, but my editor had warned me not to return to the office without an interview and a picture of the victim. That’s why I’d followed the grief-stricken father from his house to his daughter’s apartment.

The sadness on his face was replaced by exasperation when he walked outside and saw me standing on the stoop. “Man, what you want?” he snapped without breaking stride.

I chased after him, high-mindedly stammering something about “the public’s right to know,” when he wheeled around and socked me right between the eyes – not with his fist, but with his words. I’m not sure which would’ve hurt more.

The public, he corrected me with understandable virulence, doesn’t have a right to know anything about his daughter, if it was going to interfere with police finding out who stuffed his baby into a trunk.

The survivors of those killed and maimed in the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing no doubt feel the same way, that the public’s right to know everything about the bombings and the suspects takes a distant second to their right to justice.

Overheated, unfiltered

It’s bad enough that, in their haste to be first, some tabloid newspapers and TV stations have rushed to put out erroneous information and plastered their front pages with pictures of supposed suspects who, it turned out, had nothing to do with the attack.

Even worse, the overheated, unfiltered coverage has succeeded in enlightening one segment of the populace – any miscreants who might want to unleash another terrorist attack on us.

Rhonda Gibson, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, said some of the news media are “fueled by the 24-hour news cycle and tend to act irresponsibly. ... There is no need for the public to have every piece of information the second law enforcement knows it.

“Now, I hope I’m not seeming to be a traitor to my news brethren,” said Gibson, a former newspaper reporter who now teaches about journalism ethics.

She said she is embarrassed by some of the cable news coverage “that turns out to be false,” but she has been aware of the conflict between cops and reporters for years.

Cops and reporters

Her next-door neighbor was a police dispatcher and her mother was a cop. Both, she said, hated reporters.

Her neighbor, she said, “always said that when her job was the toughest, meaning that something serious had happened and there was a real need to protect the public, that’s when she would get the most media inquiries. And as a reporter, when my job was the toughest, meaning that something serious had happened and I needed information ... that’s when the cops were least likely to give me information.

“So when news people and the police are each in serious situations where it’s most important that they do their jobs well, unfortunately those two things butt heads,” Gibson said.

Both sides bear some responsibility for the impasse and both can solve it, she said. “I understand the police prefer to err on the side of caution, but I wish they would be more forthcoming ... and use a standard of ‘Is it going to harm our investigation?’ and to understand that the public wants to know what’s going on.

“If you’re a newsperson, ask yourself, ‘Would releasing this possibly hurt an investigation? Is it a vital piece of information right now?’”

Right on. Sure, it’s interesting to hear that one of the suspects was spotted by a Lord & Taylor security camera mounted atop a building. It’s also interesting to know that law enforcement is searching a particular apartment or is studying “cell phone algorithms” in the area to determine to whom one suspect was gabbing.

But from this and other crime reports, bad guys have learned not to use their real cell phones because it can help pinpoint their location at specific times, don’t stop at the 7-11 because of the surveillance cameras and don’t discard that cigarette butt or chewed-up piece of Bubble Yum because both are fertile founts of evidentiary DNA.

Early Friday morning, after the two bombing suspects had been engaged – that’s cop talk for “they shot at us and we shot back at them” – and one had been killed, a reporter for CNN did what seemed unremarkable but was.

During her live report from Watertown, the news anchor asked her to give her precise location during the ongoing manhunt. She declined to say from precisely where she was reporting because – get this – the FBI had asked her not to, lest the suspect or anyone helping him see the report and gain a tactical advantage. Perhaps chastened, both network and cable news later went to delayed newscasts.

“I think that maybe, with some of the cable TV news folks being embarrassed by some of the egregious mistakes they’ve made,” Gibson said, “that will make them slow down a bit.”

Let’s hope so. Let’s also hope they haven’t already given the next terrorist a heads up on what not to do.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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