Over the fence

A case of crossing the line for a story

The reporter knew he was being deceptive. But in this situation, he believed it was justified to get important information to the public.

By Bill Dedman

Bill Dedman, formerly a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post, is co-author of Power Reporting: A Handbook on Computer-Assisted Journalism, to be published this fall.

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

FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1991), pp. 4-5.

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.


It was Monday morning and City Editor Ralph Patrick was already yelling: “You go, and you, and you, and you!”

Word had just hit the newsroom of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Cuban detainees were rioting at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, setting fires and holding hostages.

Eleven days would pass before the 1400 Cubans surrendered, 11 days before each of the hostages would walk out alive from America’s longest prison riot.

My colleagues and I spent most of the 11 days outside the prison fence, waiting for prison officials to tell us next to nothing. But part of the time, we were inside the prison fence with family members of the hostages. Only they didn’t know that we were reporters.

At the prison and back in the newsroom, we loudly debated the ethics of fence jumping. Some of the staff thought what we were doing was an enterprising public service, and some thought that it was dangerous or invasive or deceptive.

When the first reporters began arriving at the prison, we found a noisy confusion of SWAT teams, helicopters and fire trucks. We could see smoke rising from the back of the prison. But from the road outside the fence, we couldn’t see much else. Officials wouldn’t tell us anything.

The maximum-security area of the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary (former home of Al Capone) is enclosed by a high fortress wall. Inside that wall, the Cubans — angered by a U.S. plan to send back those who arrived in the 1980 Mariel boatlift — were torching building after building. Outside the wall, on the prison grounds, officials controlled the office buildings, staff housing and a minimum-security camp. Around the grounds is a low fence.

Leaving my colleagues in front, I walked around to get a better view of the burning prison. A driveway led through the fence. A “No Trespassing” sign marked the grounds as U.S. Government property.

Walking down the driveway and behind the staff houses, I saw several prisoners on a hillside in the minimum-security camp. We stood together for half an hour, watching heavily-armed FBI agents escort out 50 captured Cubans.

After the prisoners were called inside, I was quickly spotted by a prison employee. He asked who I was, I told him I was a reporter for The Journal-Constitution, and he gruffly drove me to the driveway gate which was now guarded.

Outside, the growing mass of reporters scrambled for information. We listened to negotiations between the Cubans and the FBI on police radios. We interviewed anguished families on all sides.

As the wait stretched into its second day, prison officials still wouldn’t say how many hostages were held, their names, or the number of dead or injured.

We hoped to gain some of this information from hostage relatives, who were arriving for briefings. We weren’t having much luck flagging down families as they drove through the gate. Another reporter suggested I go back into the prison briefing building. I didn’t call the desk to ask for permission. It was a seat-of-the-pants sort of evening.

At the far corner of the grounds, out of sight of any guards, I climbed over the chest-high fence. From there, I could walk down the driveway to the family building unquestioned; anyone would think I was a family member walking from the staff houses. I was dressed in shirt and tie with no press ID.

No one was guarding the door. Inside the split-level building, I found family members watching television and waiting for news.

On a wall in the hallway was posted a sheet with 99 signatures; the Cubans had passed around a sheet for the hostages to sign to prove they were all alive. I didn’t see how I could take out my notebook to write down names, so I went into the conference room, where prison officials were giving a briefing. I spoke with no family members or staff.

I saw that each prison employee carried a typewritten list of hostages. One of the employees, the chaplain, went into a side office, and I followed him. We were about to chat — I intended to express my fears about the fate of the hostages — when he was called away, leaving his list. I tucked it into my back pocket and walked upstairs. I locked myself in an office and called the city desk.

The list was a dream. It had the names and also the emergency phone number and contact person for each hostage, which I dictated to a clerk. The only problem the list showed 100 names, not 99.

I needed to compare the list with the signature sheet to see who hadn’t signed. Back downstairs, I studied the sheet, remembered three or four names, strolled to a back office to check them off on the list. I repeated the tedious process dozens of times.

“What are you doing?” A prison official was standing over me in the back office staring at the list.

Nothing better came to mind, so I told him I was checking to see who hadn’t signed, because there were only 99 signatures and I was afraid somebody was dead.

“You’ll have to give me that list,” he said.

“No, I can’t give it to you until you satisfy my mind on this: Who didn’t sign?”

I presume that he presumed I was a family member, if an impertinent one, so he tried to be helpful.

“Which hostage member are you interested in?” he asked.

That was almost the right question. If he had asked, “Which hostage member are you related to?” Well, to tell the God’s honest truth, I might have said, “Joe Bailey,” which was a name on the list.

But he asked who I was interested in. So I said, “Joe Bailey.”

Pleased to be of service, he led me back to the sheet on the wall and together we hunted for the missing signature. He even fetched an update version of the list. We determined that one hostage hadn’t signed but seemed to be safe.

I thanked him, gave him back the list, and left the house.

The next morning, we published the list. We then used the phone numbers to gather information for a special section containing profiles of most of the hostages. (We were unable to obtain a list of the Cuban detainees; government officials, who had argued that the Cubans had no citizenship rights, denied our request, “to protect the Cubans’ right to privacy.”)

Over the next week and a half, several reporters from The Journal-Constitution went back over the fence. The main benefit was access to the hourly family briefings, which gave us somewhat more information than prison officials were spooning out in regular press feedings.

These later visits were approved by senior editors, who set some ground rules: If you’re asked directly who you are, say you are a reporter, but you don’t have to volunteer it. Don’t engage any family members in conversation; we’ll do our interviewing outside the prison.

Even with the precautions, the debate in the newsroom was heated.

  • Were we trespassing? Yes, although on government property. Once, on the last night of the siege, another reporter and I were stopped on the grounds by two FBI agents who escorted us out, but didn’t arrest us. They said they had caught several reporters from other news organizations on the prison grounds.
  • Were we endangering anybody? By going only to the family building, we didn’t think we would provoke any shooting. We also discussed whether printing the names would endanger the hostages, but it was clear the Cubans already knew who they had.
  • Were we invading the privacy of the families? We decided that our presence alone was not invasive. It would have been so if we had published descriptions or photographs of unsuspecting family members.
  • Were we deceiving to gather news? Clearly, what we did was less deceptive than if we had dressed up in costumes or lied or posed or denied that we were reporters, but still it was deceptive to let people reach a reasonable conclusion that we were family members.

So, was this deception justified?

I, for one, believed it was important to make public information public. Finding out the names and conditions of the hostages was part of our obligation, especially as the local newspaper. It’s one thing to tell Atlanta readers that 100 Atlantans are being held hostage, and another to tell them which 100 and whether they are safe.

Or to put it another way: It seemed more ethical, more in line with our duties, to go over the fence, if we did it carefully and with respect for what we found, than to sit across the street eating Salvation Army sandwiches, waiting for the morning briefing.