Suicide raises ethical questions about policy
Should newspapers assist police with vice crackdowns by publishing the names of prostitutes and their customers?
By Diane Lewis
Diane Lewis is a staff writer for the Boston Globe.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1990), p. 3.
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.
On August 17, a 47-year-old man climbed into his car, turned on the ignition, and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The suicide occurred three days after a brief article appeared in The Brockton (MA) Enterprise, linking him to a 25-year-old prostitute.
A few weeks earlier the Enterprise began publishing the names of prostitutes and “johns” at the request of police. Bruce Smith, executive editor of the newspaper, said the new naming policy would not change. He believes the Enterprise is performing a public service which has reduced the community’s problem with prostitution and said he would continue to support the police crackdown on vice.
“We didn’t commit the crime,” Smith said, referring to the man’s arrest and that of a prostitute. “I don’t think there has been any direct link between the fact that his name was published and the suicide.”
The man, police said, left a brief suicide note, but it did not mention his arrest and conviction on solicitation charges.
Still, the suicide has raised many questions, including the relationship between media and police.
“When a newspaper decides to do certain work because of police, it becomes an arm of the police,” said David Martinson, a journalism professor at Florida International University. “The police enlist the paper in a quasi-governmental capacity and that is a serious issue.”
But Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, said the fact that police requested the names be published does not automatically make the newspaper an arm of the police.
“The first question the editor must address is whether or not prostitution is so important in that community that people should be exposed to the notoriety,” said Kovach.
“If the answer is that the only reason they did it is because the police decided it should be a priority, then you have to wonder who sets the priorities,” he continued. “If the editor listened and felt prostitution was a big deal, then it was a legitimate decision.”
Louis Hodges, director of Society and the Professions at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, disagreed. He said the media compromises itself whenever it collaborates with police and that the criminal justice system should be left alone to “deal with a violation of the law.”
“The punishment or the damage meted out by the newspaper is far more severe than society metes out in the courts,” he said. “The loss of a job and the loss of family represents a heavier sanction by the newspaper on the violator than society has agreed to mete out.”
For years, The Hartford Courant did not publish the names of johns and, in fact, resisted police requests that it do so. Last spring, the newspaper changed its mind after readers asked it to reconsider.
“We used to view prostitution as a victimless crime. Now, I don’t think that’s entirely true,” said Claude Albert, deputy managing editor of the Courant. “First, it carries a very high risk of AIDS and the transmission of AIDS to innocent people. Second, neighborhood leaders told us that it has had a harmful effect on their neighborhoods.”
Albert said he and other Courant editors now feel they’re performing a community service. No one has committed suicide since the practice began, but he said the recent arrest of a rabbi “caused a great deal of embarrassment.”
“It was clear to us that, unlike others, this was one crime in which the newspaper held the most power to combat,” he said. “It is doubtful whether publishing petty larcenies cuts down on shoplifting, but the publication of the names of prostitutes and johns in the newspaper does suppress prostitution.”
Clifton Douglas, former deputy managing editor of The Miami Herald, recalled that the newspaper used to publish the names of prostitutes and johns after special sting operations by police.
“We played the game in Miami for awhile and then we decided we couldn’t become an instrument of their (police) revenge.”
Now managing editor of The Charlotte Observer, Douglas said the North Carolina newspaper does not routinely cover such arrests. “I try to avoid the use of the media by any institution,” he said. “I’d just as soon not publish the names of either prostitutes or their customers when arrests are orchestrated events.”
Eighteen months ago, The Kentucky Post began publishing the names of persons arrested for prostitution or solicitation after reports from police, business people and residents that said prostitution had become a serious problem in Covington.
“Publishing the names of prostitutes and people who solicit is legitimate territory for any newspaper,” said Post editor Judith Clabes. “Newspapers deal with the public record and the law and it is against the law to solicit prostitutes.”
When deciding whether to name names, Joan Konner, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, said blanket rules don’t apply, editors must look at each case “very carefully.”
“Maybe the question ought to be, ‘Should prostitution between consenting adults be a crime?’” Konner said.
As for the suicide that might occur after a name is published, she said, “I don’t think a publication should take responsibility for that. Publicity is not the only thing that drives a person to that kind of act of desperation.