“Everyone already knew”

A weak excuse for abandoning standards

He was a juvenile accused of a very adult crime. His identity was already well known. Did that make it right to abandon the policy of protecting minors?

By Kerry Sipe

Kerry Sipe, public editor of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, is president of The Organization of News Ombudsmen.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1991), p. 2.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

For journalists, the real test of ethical standards comes when a hot story is breaking, one that has the whole town talking, a story like the one that dominated the front pages of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star in mid-March.

Two freckle-faced boys, ages 9 and 7, disappeared while playing near their homes in suburban Virginia Beach, VA. An exhaustive search by police and civilian volunteers turned up their horribly butchered bodies beneath a pile of damp leaves. Within days, police charged Shawn Novak, a 16-year-old local high school student, with murder. Both newspapers published Novak’s name and photograph on their front pages.

Normally, the newspapers’ policy is not to reveal the identity of any person younger than 18 who is accused of a crime. The thinking is that a child deserves special protection so a crime committed in his or her youth doesn’t ruin chances for a productive life as an adult.

But this was a story of exceptional public interest, and exceptional was the way the newspapers decided to treat it. Routine standards established to protect minors, not to mention a state law constraining legal authorities from releasing the names of juvenile offenders, were simply disregarded in this case.

Using the same controversial logic that has prevailed in the Kennedy rape charge case in Palm Beach, editors decided that the interests of the accused were less compelling than the public’s interest in knowing what was going on.

“This is a serious crime,” explained James C. Raper, the newspapers’ managing editor. “The public has a right to know who has been charged.”

And, he argued, “Everybody in that community knew he had been arrested.” Novak’s name had even been used on television.

In cases of particularly violent crimes, Raper said, juveniles should be identified just as adults are. “That’s always been my policy,” he said. “We use the name.” Yet the same day Novak was arrested, the newspapers chose not to identify another 16-year-old boy charged with murder.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Humphreys, whose job it will be to prosecute Novak, said editors are on shaky moral ground when they enforce their policies selectively. “If society has made a decision to treat juveniles differently from adults, and your own policy confirms the wisdom of that decision” he said, “how are you justified in naming juveniles when it’s in your own self-interest? It’s an indefensible position.”

Humphreys has asked the courts to try Novak as if he were an adult and he thinks the media’s identification of the boy may have that result. But that doesn’t make it right, he said. “The media have really taken the options away from the court,” he said. “The best reason for trying him as a juvenile (anonymity) doesn’t apply in this case. This kid’s reputation is already dead. The media saw to that.”

One of the reporters under whose byline the boy’s name was revealed has since had a change of heart. After initially opposing use of the name, reporter Steve Stone confessed that he “joined the chorus of ‘Well, everyone already knows.’” But Stone said later in a memo to his editors that “. . . the law is written in such a way as to shield juveniles. It is up to a court, not us, to decide when the circumstances of a crime . . . are such that protection is no longer deserved . . .”

The restrictions on using juveniles’ names was not the only one of the papers’ policies that was compromised in the stories about the Virginia Beach murders. The newspapers also have a policy against allowing sources to hide behind a cloak of anonymity while defaming others.

Yet, in one story, a reporter permitted an unidentified acquaintance of Novak’s to call the boy “weird” without any explanation and another anonymous source to express the preposterous theory that Novak had been driven to murder because he was “too religious” and “probably thought the devil got hold of him.”

Most disturbing, perhaps, was a story in which reporters granted anonymity to a man who declared that, if he ever saw Novak, he would “put a bullet through his head.” The anonymous quote may have been intended to reflect the community’s anger over the crime, but I do not recall any other news story in which an anonymous source has been permitted to threaten to kill somebody.

If the words “rumor” and “innuendo” have any meaning at all, they describe much of the information included in these stories. The senseless murder of two little boys unquestionably inflamed passions outside and inside the newsroom. But the circumstances, as troubling as they are, simply do not justify the newspapers conscious disregard of their own standards of good professional conduct.

If there are legitimate reasons for withholding the names of juvenile defendants, how is the exception in young Novak’s case justified? If it’s wrong to permit anonymous sources to defame others, why was it right in this story? If it’s bad to publish common gossip, what is it about Novak’s case that made that type of material acceptable?

For journalists to establish standards and then to set them aside when a good story sets their blood racing, is hypocritical at best.

Specific ethical standards are still fairly new to most journalism professionals. Many have only a rudimentary understanding of the full implications of ethical performance. A simple truth has yet to sink in: You can have standards for ethical conduct or you can print whatever the hell you want to print, but you can’t do both at the same time.

 

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