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Journalism Ethics

Defamation Law Discussion Forum

Journalism Ethics

Postby jorel » Mon Dec 05, 2016 11:07 pm

Hi,

I am doing research for a media ethics class about Steven J. Hatfill, the scientist who was identified by the news media to be a "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailing attacks. Hatfill was not convicted of these crimes and received a $4.5 million settlement from the government after his reputation was ruined. When is it fair for the news media to publicly identify someone as a "person of interest" in a case? How should a journalist go about determining this? Thanks for your time.

Bailey
jorel
 
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Journalism Ethics

Postby Joseba » Mon Dec 05, 2016 11:35 pm

Hi,

I am doing research for a media ethics class about Steven J. Hatfill, the scientist who was identified by the news media to be a "person of interest" in the FBI's investigation of the 2001 anthrax mailing attacks. Hatfill was not convicted of these crimes and received a $4.5 million settlement from the government after his reputation was ruined. When is it fair for the news media to publicly identify someone as a "person of interest" in a case? How should a journalist go about determining this? Thanks for your time.

Bailey
Joseba
 
Posts: 52
Joined: Mon Jan 06, 2014 11:21 pm

Journalism Ethics

Postby Sonny » Sat Dec 10, 2016 1:43 pm

I am not totally familiar with this case, but a quick check of Google revealed that the Attorney General of the United States, John Ashcroft, was found to have libeled Hatfill and a judgement of $4.5 million was entered against the US Government to be paid out of taxpayer funds. Although General Ashcroft was found to have libeled Hatfill, it didn't cost him a cent. You and I paid for it. The New York Times was also sued, but the judge threw that case out of court.

Your question is a good one. When a government official, speaking in his capacity as a government official or government spokesperson says something, you may use it. It is not up to you to determine whether it is libelous. A working journalist cannot be expected to verify every statement that comes from an official government spokesman. If the government official is wrong, then he, or in the cast of Hatfill, the government must pay.

Investigative reporting is a different situation.  An investigative reporter ostensibly uncovers the facts himself, or relies on unnamed government sources. In those cases, the journalist had better be sure he is right, and can prove it. That is why investigative journalism is so rarely practiced and why newspapers place such a high value on good investigative reporting. Many newspapers have lawyers read the work of an investigative reporter before it gets into print because an investigative reporter is out there alone if he's wrong, and many take great pains to be able to prove what they said in print if they are sued.

If you are an investigative reporter this you work under a different set of rules, and then you write with the expectation that you will likely be sued, so you are prepared.  Otherwise, it's safe to quote responsible government spokesmen, like the Attorney General of the United States, because if he's wrong, he pays, not you.

JM
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