Newspaper joins war against drugs

Standard-Times publishes photos of all suspected drug offenders

This newspaper decided it was time to take special action to increase public awareness of the community’s problem with drugs.

By James Ragsdale

James Ragsdale is editor of The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA.

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. 2 (February 1991), pp. 1, 8.

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.

 

More than two months ago, The (New Bedford, MA) Standard-Times began publishing photographs each day of people arraigned in court on drugs charges. We call it, “Drug Watch.”

Real people, standing before the judge — accused drug pushers, runners, buyers. Heroin, cocaine, crack. Mothers . . . click. Fathers . . . click.

Sons, daughters . . . click, click.

I announced in a Page-One column on November 14, 1990, what The Standard-Times was doing, and why. The phones started ringing off the hook with that day’s publication.

“The best thing The Standard-Times has ever done,” is the comment heard over and over again.

It has been the biggest public response I’ve seen in my 30 years in journalism. And it has been overwhelmingly favorable, easily 3-or-4-to-1.

Reaction has not been all positive, however. Although well in the minority, those against Drug Watch voice sharp, intense criticism. An ACLU lawyer says it violates journalism ethics to photograph people only accused of crime. A defense lawyer fears the collapse of a defendant’s right to a fair trial. A colleague says it’s bad form, that he would publish photos only of those convicted.

A journalism educator charges that drug pushers and users are really victims, and the photos unfairly hit on victims of crime. Journalists, he argues, should protect victims, not parade them publicly.

All these arguments cause me to wonder where these people have been for the past 50 or more years of journalism.

But first, clarification on exactly what we are doing that’s new, and why we decided to do it.

We have always published a daily account, a log of sorts, of all serious criminal cases appearing before the local courts. These include people arraigned, the charges against them, and eventually the resolutions of the cases, whether guilty, acquitted, whatever.

What’s new with Drug Watch is separating drug cases from the rest of the court docket and including photographs. Beneath the photograph, called a mug shot, appears the name of the person and status of the case. A picture, if available, appears when the suspect is arraigned and when the case is disposed of.

Our photographer is assigned to the morning court session when most arraignments occur. We photograph each person appearing before the judge on drug charges.

To understand why we do this only for drugs requires a peek into New Bedford’s history. Though economically depressed a decade ago, not even those neighborhoods with 2-3-and-4-family tenements could be called blighted or slums. Proud owners kept their properties fit and freshly painted.

Standard-Times reporters, on extensive special assignments the past year or so, have shown all that is changed. Block-by-block, reporters discovered neighborhoods were surrendering to the infestation of drug dealers.

Law-abiding families were forced to leave these areas in fear for themselves or their children. Low-income families, accustomed to paying $300 to $400 a month rent, couldn’t compete with the $1,000 to $1,500 per month some absentee landlords could get from drug dealers.

Where only a few years ago no blighted area existed in the city, we now published photos of burned-out and boarded-up buildings; of streets where children played with used hypodermic needles; of public parks where no one but drug dealers dared to linger.

The war involving drugs had arrived, and the newcomers clearly were winning.

Following these disclosures of just how bad the situation had become, Standard-Times Publisher Orren Robbins held a series of meetings called the Greater New Bedford Public Forum on Drugs.

This forum explored the gravity of the growing decay, discovering how drug-related crime was at the root of severe housing, education, safety and economic woes in these neighborhoods.

Extraordinary measures were required in a variety of areas, including education, law enforcement and treatment to address the spreading menace to the community. Among these measures, we reasoned, was the need to further increase the public’s awareness of the seriousness of the drug problem.

Over time, the idea evolved that publishing photographs of those accused of drug crimes is one way to heighten public awareness. So far, it has worked.

Now back to the journalism ethics issues.

Coast-to-coast, newspapers each day publish photographs of people accused of crime. Each community has its local examples of cases that don’t gain national prominence. A person accused of kidnapping, of murder, embezzling from a school account, molesting a child, a drunken driver accused in a fatal accident, etc.

I’ve not heard the ACLU, defense lawyers, journalism educators and others claim that these photos irreparably damage these defendants’ rights to a fair trial, or that this violates ethical standards.

The sheer numbers of these cases — perhaps several thousand-fold across the country — that do result in fair trials render this argument lame.

Just recently in our own community, a 14-year-old girl was killed by a sniper’s bullet while riding on a school bus on a highway. When the three people accused of being involved in the crime were arraigned, their photographs appeared in every newspaper in the region.

In my mind, publishing photos of people accused of crime is not an ethical issue. It’s done all the time. Rather, it’s a question of news judgment; that is, which cases warrant the extra effort and news space.

Numerically, no crime in our area comes even close to the number of people accused of drug-related crime. The crime of drugs has become so insidious that far more households are directly affected by drugs than by murder, kidnapping or rape. 

In my reasoning, we serve our readers well to bring to their attention those involved in drug-related crime, just as we do those involved in embezzling town funds, or rape or murder.

By their own reaction, our readers overwhelmingly agree.

For another view, see “Fairness: a casualty of the anti-drug crusade.”

 

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