The paper: Boston Herald
The case: In October after the Boston Red Sox defeated the New York Yankees, Boston police fired plastic balls filled with pepper spray to quell a crowd outside of Fenway Park that they say threatened to be getting out of control. Victoria Snelgrove, a 21-year-old journalism student, was hit in the eye by one of shots, fell to the ground and died shortly thereafter.
Photographers caught Snelgrove’s shooting, and both the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe used pictures of Snelgrove in the next available paper. The Globe opted for a smaller photo in black and white, while the Herald ran Snelgrove’s death large on the front page with a headline “Triumph and Tragedy.” A more graphic photo ran inside in black and white.
The fallout: Hundreds of letters from angry readers poured into the Herald newsroom. Boston Phoenix writer Dan Kennedy called it “a tabloid’s new low.” Within days, the Herald ran a news story on the issue, including statements from Editorial Director Ken Chandler apologizing for running the photos.
“Our aim was to illustrate this terrible tragedy as comprehensively as possible and to prevent a repetition by portraying the harsh reality of what can happen when a crowd acts irresponsibly,” Chandler wrote. “It was never our intent to disrespect Victoria Snelgrove or her family. In retrospect, the images of this unusually ugly incident were too graphic. I apologize to the Snelgroves and the community at large.’’
The lessons learned: Arthur Pollock, associate photo editor at the Herald, said it is a tough decision any time the paper decides to use such a graphic photo. However, part of the rationale for doing so is to show readers the full impact of an incident. He noted that there had been previous controversies over the use of the air-propelled, pepper-spray rounds, and the photos could help bring about discussions on their use. After the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, police were faced with similar crowds and elected not to use the projectiles.
The papers: Rocky Mountain News, Daily Camera
The case: Newspapers in particular have a longstanding policy of keeping alleged sexual assault victims anonymous when reporting on criminal court proceedings.
But reasons for protecting victim identities become debatable when a civil lawsuit is involved.
When Kobe Bryant’s accuser refiled her civil lawsuit under her real name in October and asked the media to respect her anonymity, two Colorado newspapers covering the case ignored the request and divulged her name on the basis of fairness.
Denver’s Rocky Mountain News took the lead, outing Katelyn Faber in an Oct. 14 article after she amended her original lawsuit to include her name. The Daily Camera, in neighboring Boulder, followed suit in its Oct. 16 edition when it ran a Scripps News Service story written by a Rocky Mountain News reporter.
Faber accused Bryant of raping her in the summer of 2003 at an Eagle County, Colorado, resort hotel where she worked and he was a guest. Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers basketball star who is married, admitted to having sex with Faber but has insisted it was consensual.
State criminal charges were filed against Bryant in Eagle County, but they were dismissed in September during jury selection when Faber said she would not proceed as a witness.
While Faber’s name was widely known on the Internet and appeared in other publications, the Rocky Mountain News and other mainstream news organizations had not published it before she added her name to the lawsuit because she was an alleged sexual assault victim.
Editors continue to support the decision, saying fairness requires that both parties be named when reporting on a civil lawsuit that involves monetary damages. In addition, Faber had the option of withdrawing her lawsuit after Colorado U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch ruled it would be retitled on Oct. 20 to include her name.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently,” said Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple. “We thoroughly discussed the issue, and I still believe we did the right thing. I would tell other editors to do what they think is right. But if they don’t name plaintiffs in civil suits involving allegations of sexual assault out of fear of public reaction, they should think again.”
The fallout: “This is a big issue for journalists, but not for readers. We had almost no negative response. Maybe one or two phone calls and e-mails. We had more positive response than negative. Since then, we’ve run a photo of Katelyn and her husband attending a hearing in Denver. Again, no response. I think basic fairness calls for newspapers to name plaintiffs in most civil suits.”
The News, along with Bryant’s attorneys, objected separately when Faber’s lawyers asked Matsch to allow her to continue as plaintiff “Jane Doe.” Matsch said that public confidence depends on courts being as open as possible and that the two parties in the suit have to proceed on an equal footing. She then filed her own amended lawsuit before the court inserted it.
At the Daily Camera, the decision was made easier by an earlier precedent-setting case. Before Editor Susan Deans’ arrival, the paper established a policy that sexual-assault accusers who filed civil lawsuits could be identified.
The lessons learned: “I don’t feel that we went out on a huge limb to do this,” Deans said. “Others had already decided to (publish Faber’s name), and we used their stories in some cases.”
Scripps owns both the Daily Camera and Rocky Mountain News, but Deans said the Camera’s editors weighed the decision without guidance or an edict from corporate.
And while she ultimately made the final call, she did seek input from other staffers and invited them to participate in the news meeting to discuss the issue.
CREATING THE NEWS
The paper: Corpus Christi Caller-Times
The case: Reporters often find themselves close to the action when on assignment, but a Corpus Christi Caller-Times writer recently helped to create the news when she posed as a prostitute during a police sting.
Editor Libby Averyt continues to call reporter Venessa Santos-Garza’s involvement in the Dec. 13 operation a mistake because it blurred the newspaper’s watchdog role. Her account of the evening’s activities never made it to print.
“The thought was to try to give our readers an inside view of a new police initiative, and unfortunately we didn’t think through the situation as well as we should have,” Averyt said in a Dec. 23 Caller-Times article. “For us to maintain our watchdog role, we should not get involved in law enforcement activities and will not in the future.”
The Corpus Christi police sting, which resulted in four arrests, pre-empted the launch of a new Web site that displays the names and mug shots of those charged. Newspaper editors and Police Chief Pete Alvarez agreed to let Santos-Garza pose as an undercover prostitute, and she was present during the events that led to two of the arrests.
“We fully support Venessa and the enthusiasm with which she does her job, and she went about this with the knowledge of her supervisors,” she said in the article. “She did nothing wrong. She let her supervisors know in advance about the sting and her role in it. After further discussion, it was concluded that this was not the way we want to go about gathering information.”
The fallout: Averyt declined to elaborate on details of Santos-Garza’s role, saying it intrudes too far in the paper’s newsgathering decisions.
“Our reporter did her job in pursuing a story in a way that some thought would give our readers a new perspective on a significant community story here,” she said. “But before the story even got to the editing process, we thought better of the decision and killed the story.”
The lessons learned: “We made a mistake in allowing the reporter to go undercover. We acknowledged that with our readers, and we’ve learned from that error. I’m not going to go into details about who knew what, when, because I don’t think it’s relevant to the discussion. We, as a newsroom, learned from this decision, and hopefully others in the media learned from it, too.
The paper: Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
The case: In February, the New England Patriots were preparing to defend their Super Bowl title in Jacksonville, Fla., and Worcester Telegram & Gazette sportswriter Ken Powers was in Jacksonville for the build-up to the game. However, back home the paper’s editors had received two tips from readers that a Sunday, Jan. 30, Powers column was, in fact, not his work but a near-duplicate of a Sports Illustrated online column by football writer Peter King.
On Monday, Jan. 31, Editor Harry Whitin ordered Powers home while the paper investigated the plagiarism charges. It soon became apparent that entire paragraphs of the King column had been copied directly into Powers’ work, and other portions were only slightly changed. The paper had recently installed a new front-end paginating and editing system, and Powers told his editors that while he had used the King column as background, he had never meant to send the column along as his own work. Over a series of meetings, Powers insisted that the incident was a horrible mistake, Whitin said.
“At that moment, I was sure of what happened, and that this was not just an accident, but I guess I was concerned still at that moment about intent,” Whitin said. “In other words, had he really intended this for publication or not. All along he had insisted that he had his own column which had somehow disappeared in the system.”
In the course of the investigation, editors found the second column in the system, and it also turned out to have been lifted from another newspaper’s Web site.
“I am a strong believer in fairness and due process and wanted to make sure if there was an argument in his behalf that we considered it,” Whitin said. “That was kind of the final straw, and that resulted in his termination.”
Immediately upon discovering the plagiarized column, the paper ran a correction and kept the readers updated as the investigation unfolded. In an editorial page column, Whitin outlined the paper’s stance on ethics and assured readers that this was not a normal occurrence.
“For us it is a cardinal sin, the integrity of our product demands that we tell you when we have done it and pledge to you that we are going to do everything in our power to not do it again,” Whitin said.
The paper is still going through more than 200 of Powers past pieces, looking for further incidents of plagiarism. Editors discovered, after just a short while of doing Google searches on Powers’ previous columns, several more incidents of plagiarism earlier in the season.
The fallout: Whitin said the community response has been overwhelmingly positive with only two negative reactions. However, the main reaction within the newsroom has been anger. He said the scandal hit with “all the surprise and force of a sucker punch.”
“I think all of us felt individually betrayed,” Whitin said.
“The misdeeds of an individual reflect on us collectively. The newspaper itself took a hit, and we had an obligation to vouch to the readers that we will do better.”
The lessons learned: In 1998, the paper put out a written ethics policy that specifically addressed plagiarism. However, Whitin said he views the ethics policy as a constantly evolving project. The ethics policies have come out in a series of memorandums over the years, instead of a single document, and the plagiarism may lead to more refinement of those policies. About six months ago, the paper had begun consolidating those into one manual.
The editors and reporters have had a series of meetings to discuss the issue and Internet usage in general. One change has been a decision that writers no longer are allowed to cut and paste directly from an Internet source into their own work; instead, they have to print the information out and rewrite it in their own words, rather than risk accidental plagiarism.