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Opening Arguments

The rules are changing

Indianapolis Star Editor Dennis Ryerson walks us through a journalism ethical dilemma. The family of a missing woman calls a news conference to reveal the identify of a man who was seen with the woman on the day she disappeared and also the identity of another person believed to have introduced the man to the woman. The police have shown no interest in this man as a possible suspect. Ryerson:

Our dilemma was whether to publish the names.
We consider several questions whenever such situations arise: What is the public and journalistic interest? Who are the stakeholders? What are our options? Who would be harmed and how? How can we minimize harm?
Three of my colleagues said we should not use the names. They pointed out that police had interviewed the two individuals and did not talk about them as people involved with Dattilo's fate.
Our publishing the names, even pointing out that they weren't suspects, would cast a cloud over these people and their families, the argument went. With so little indication from police that these people were involved, any potential good in releasing the names was outweighed by the potential harm.
Two others took another view. A couple of news outlets already had released the name of the man, they argued. Any potential harm already had been done. We'd look silly were we to hold back.
Ryerson eventually comes to what I think is the right decision, up to a point: It doesn't matter what other news outlets have done. We are responsible only for what is in the Star, so let's err on the side of caution and leave the names out.
But that point -- after which it would make no sense to keep leaving the names out -- is moving rapidly. Once the names are in such widespread use that everyone already knows them, the Star would risk not even being in the same conversation as the people it tries to sell newspapers to. These days, with everyone who has access to a computer being a potential publisher, that point will come at warp speed on this story if it hasn't already been reached.
Posted in: Hoosier lore


brian stouder
Mon, 01/08/2007 - 7:27am

Seems to me that the newspaper would have the opportunity to publish a front-page editorial on exactly the issue of responsible journalism. They could contact the 'outed' individuals, and offer them their own mainstream-media inning if they want it (and thus assure that their side of the story would forever be linkable on the 'net).

My newspaper would emphasize "News you can trust" instead of "News you can use". Afterall, what 'use' is gossip or libelous speculation?

Steve Towsley
Mon, 01/08/2007 - 4:22pm

I don't disagree in principle, but we all know there are too many cases in this country in which some people's evidence is under-investigated.

That is why people feel compelled, every so often, to go to a newspaper after having been ignored by the police.

This is where I have to hope that the newspaper will do a thorough enough job of checking into the facts that a decision to withhold what could otherwise be important information is truly not worthy of further serious consideration, by the public OR reluctant police.

tim zank
Mon, 01/08/2007 - 4:38pm

Brian, the answer to your question
"Afterall, what 'use' is gossip or libelous speculation?" is simply profit.

Bob G.
Tue, 01/09/2007 - 8:00am

Cha-CHING.($$$)..we have a winner!