Magazine article Editor & Publisher

'Gotcha Gamble.' (Were Newspapers Acting Unethically in Their Sensationalism of the Atlanta Pipe Bomb Investigation?)(includes Related Article)

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

'Gotcha Gamble.' (Were Newspapers Acting Unethically in Their Sensationalism of the Atlanta Pipe Bomb Investigation?)(includes Related Article)

Article excerpt

ATLANTA SECURITY GUARD Richard Jewell is still a suspect in the Olympic Centennial Park bombing -- at least officially.

Despite a painstaking search of all areas save his bodily orifices, the FBI has not produced any evidence that links him to the deadly July 27 explosion.

Jewell may vet be implicated in the crime. He believes, however, that even if the FBI clears him, the cluster-bomb media coverage this summer has doomed his security guard career. Recent news of Jewell has trickled off to biweekly bleats generated mostly by his lawyers.

Jewell's legal team is demanding records from the FBI, and is threatening to sue members of the media for libel. High on their list is the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which first named Jewell as a suspect based on information leaked by an FBI source.

"As night follows day, the Atlanta Journal Constitution will be sued. There is no doubt about it," vowed G. Watson Bryant, one of Jewell's Atlanta attorneys.

"They said he fit the profile of a lone bomber and that he sought publicity," Bryant said. "Those are two big lies."

Outside the legal arena, Jewell's situation raises questions about how far the press should go to report on criminal suspects who haven't been formally charged. Further, some media depictions of Jewell -- from hero security guard to pathetic sociopath -- strike man! as grossly unfair.

"BE JUDICIOUS"

The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics -- voted on and passed at the September SPJ convention -- recommends that the press "be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges."

SPJ Ethics Committee chairman Jay Black of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg said that the code is intended to serve as "guiding principles as people sift and sort through the tough calls."

Does Black think that the spirit of the code was followed in the Jewell situation?

"Not terribly well," he said. "I think it's problematic. It doesn't seem to me that they were judicious.... But we are not all of one mind on this."

Editors at the Journal and Constitution aren't giving interviews, but the newspaper has issued a general statement about its coverage of Jewell.

"This is an important story that we've pursued aggressively from the start, and we are still reporting it," the statement reads. "Our initial story accurately reported that the focus of the investigation had turned to a particular individual.

"Since that story, we have published many more, quoting Mr. Jewell, his attorneys, charges against him were ever filed, O'Ferrell says his health, family and business were damaged by the investigation. He is suing the FBI for $20 million.

William Brown, vice president for news at the Montgomery, (Ala.) Advertiser recalled coverage of O'Ferrell.

"It became such a public spectacle in a fairly small town. It wasn't a quiet investigation -- the FBI made it a public event. There was no way not to cover it, because it wasn't like an FBI source telling a reporter that they were looking at someone. Whether the FBI did [O'Farrell] a disservice, I think, seems apparent in hindsight."

When Jewell was named as a suspect in the Olympic bombing, Brown said the newspaper ran a wire service report that cited the Journal and Constitution story.

"If the same story had happened in Montgomery, there probably would have been more agonizing and soul-searching. …

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