When history collides with the present
A newspaper discovers that a city official has a history of headline-making violence. But the official was a child when it happened and has been punished for his crime. Should his past go unreported?
By Cheryl Appel
Cheryl Appel, who now works for the Gannett Westchester Newspapers, was a reporter/copy editor for Town Crier Publications, Sudbury, MA, at the time of the incident.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 5 (August 1989), p. 4.
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.
When I encountered Albert Thompson, it was 18 years after he had stabbed a playmate to death.
The Wayland Town Crier published an interview with Thompson, who had just accepted the highly-politicized job of executive director of the Wayland Housing Authority, on June 13, 1985. The next morning, Editor Andrea Haynes received the first of what would be many anonymous phone tips.
That call started Haynes and her staff on a summer of investigating and writing, and agonizing over whether to reveal Thompson’s past.
Information from newspaper accounts and off-the-record sources helped piece together the story: When Thompson was a 12-year-old living in Wayland, Boston suburb, he killed 6-year-old Mark Dupuis by stabbing him in the head and face 23 times. Dupuis had been hit in the shoulder by Thompson during a jackknife-flipping game and began to cry. Thompson, fearing the boy would tell his mother, panicked.
Thompson was arrested that night, and, found guilty, sent through the state’s juvenile system. He had been a troubled child, physically and sexually abused by his stepfather.
The staff of the Town Crier, three full-time reporters and two editors, assembled facts for a story it might never publish.
We talked to everyone we could find, including the reporter who had covered the 1967 killing and the murdered boy’s mother. No one would go on record.
The staff also discovered fraudulent entries on his resume. The paper printed stories about those and other discrepancies in his professional record while deciding what to do about the childhood crime in Thompson’s past.
As information accumulated, staff meetings became more frequent. Many were held in the publisher’s office on a speaker phone to the paper’s attorney. He assured us that legally we could publish the story about the playmate’s killing, despite the sealed juvenile records, since so many years had passed and this man was now in a public position.
The ethics involved the juvenile records, the private lives of public officials, the extent of knowledge in the community and the public’s right – or need – to know.
As a reporter, I was often torn between protecting Thompson and the public’s right to know.
At every staff meeting, no matter how many new facts had surfaced, the ethical arguments remained, and the staff’s decision was always split.
We asked ourselves if Thompson was entitled to privacy: Hadn’t he paid his penalty? Should he be judged only on his actions as an adult?
Did the public need to know about his past?
The staff was not in a position to judge his motives or whether he was an unbalanced threat to the public, or to the tenants.
Housing Authority members knew about his past when they hired him. But they learned about some falsifications on his resume from our stories.
We could discern no general feeling in the town that he shouldn’t have the job. Tenants had expressed support, not fear.
Was he newsworthy because he was a public official, or because he had returned to his hometown?
The staff decided that summer not to publish what it knew, but kept the subject open. We just couldn’t decide that he was enough of a threat to risk harming him.
But then-publisher James Hopson, who had just joined the paper and chose not to override Haynes’ decision, later said the story should have been printed. “Al Thompson forfeited any claims to privacy when he sought a public position,” he reasoned. “. . . It’s a hell of a news story.”
Boston magazine, a 124,000-circulation monthly, agreed. In November 1985, writer John Strahinich broke the playmate stabbing death story, calling it “The Bogeyman Comes Home.”
Strahinich said he had told Thompson he’d write a story – whether or not he cooperated. Thompson talked – about childhood beatings, suicide attempts, reform school and two marriages. And the killing. It sent waves through Wayland.
Haynes wrote a column explaining why the Crier hadn’t broken the story, and the paper also ran news and reaction pieces.
In April 1986, the Housing Authority voted 4-1 not to renew Thompson’s contract, citing poor job performance and deteriorating relationship with the board. He resigned in May.
Six months later, Thompson hanged himself.
The news was a shock but I felt relieved that we hadn’t revealed his story a year earlier. Still, I wondered whether a small-town weekly breaking the story could have helped Thompson.
If we had printed a balanced treatment that allowed him to get everything off his chest, he may have been able to deal with his past and his problems more rationally. I now think we should have printed what we knew.
Hopson agreed. Being sensitive and restrained, he said, “didn’t do much for the journalistic credibility of the Town Crier. All of the explanations and clarifications in the world don’t change that fundamental fact that we got our pants pulled down a big story.”