Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Not identifying witnesses

An interesting debate for ethics class arises out of a shooting story in The (Columbia) State today. The backstory: A 19-year-old man was gunned down by another man lying in wait in the bushes of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

The victim is called a 19-year-old Columbia man whose family said he was trying to put his gang connections behind him.

The paper says at least 14 shots were fired, so there certainly is a certain viciousness to it.

Then comes this:

At least one seminary student witnessed the shooting from about 10 feet away, while dozens of others in dorm rooms heard the shots.

Two students trained in emergency response helped Grooms, who lay bleeding on the street, surrounded by 14 shell casings from a 9 mm gun.

The shooter did not speak to Grooms or demand money, according to the student who saw the shooting. The State newspaper is not identifying the witness because no one has been arrested in the case.

No indication the witnesses asked for protection or that police suggested it was a good idea. Just a unilateral statement.

Certainly, I can see reasons for it, but of course every time we do this, it is troubling. It essentially says "trust us" in an era when the operational model seems to be more transparency.

So what do you think? Me, I wish the paper had done more than make a blanket statement. What criteria is it using? Will this be the norm now anytime arrests have not been made? Is there a policy, or is this just the ethics of expedience? This would be the perfect place for the executive editor to get on his blog, if he had one (he doesn't that I'm aware of), and explain. Online, put a link in the story to an explanation of the policy. In the paper, put a box directing me at least to the online explanation.

I think an excellent opportunity to engage in a conversation has been lost.

Technorati tags: newspapers, journalism ethics


At 3/24/06, 10:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost looks to me like an editor realized (either at the last minute or because it was a late-breaking story) the witness' name wasn't mentioned in the story. He/she just threw in the sentence to try to explain why it was missing.

At 3/24/06, 2:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should there be an explanation? Why do readers really care?

At 3/24/06, 3:00 PM, Blogger Doug said...

I'm a reader. I cared.

At 3/24/06, 3:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think readers care because the absence of a name generates distracting questions: Does the newspaper know the name? Or was the name not released? Is the name being withheld? And if so, by whom, the police or the paper? And why?


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