We all want to know who killed journalist Sarah Greenhalgh in her Fauquier County home on July 9. So when police searched a suspect’s home, and then arrested him 10 days later on a completely unrelated court violation, two major media outlets in our area — InsideNova.com (the online version of the Manassas News & Messenger) and WJLA-7 — publicly identified the man, though he still has not been charged with murder.
For many years, naming an uncharged suspect was strictly prohibited in journalism. A suspect was not named until the authorities had at least enough proof — probable cause — to file charges. The idea was not to publicly, permanently besmirch someone who might be innocent — and also not to create legal liability for the newspaper or broadcaster by falsely accusing someone.
But in this Olympic season, we mark the 16th anniversary of when this rule started to change: the news media’s identification of security guard Richard Jewell as a suspect in the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Jewell was innocent. In 2002, the media named Steven Hatfill as a suspect in the anthrax mailings. He didn’t do it. Both men’s lives were destroyed.
Most local media did not name the “person of interest” (a purposely vague and meaningless term) in the Greenhalgh case, including The Post, even after he was arrested in another case. But InsideNova, the top newsgathering operation in Prince William County, and the Web site (but not the television programs) of WJLA-7 did name him. I asked them why, and after you read their reasons, I’d be interested to hear what you’d do as editor or news director.
I spoke with Kari Pugh, the editor of InsideNova.com, and Steve Pendlebury, the managing editor of the News & Messenger. Pugh has long experience in newspapers, Pendlebury is a veteran of broadcast and online news. They collaborated on their answers.
In the Sarah Greenhalgh murder case, you (and some other media outlets) published the name of the “person of interest” in the case, though he hasn’t been charged in the murder. He was arrested on an unrelated charge. Sometimes, as we have learned from the high profile cases of Richard Jewell at the 1996 Olympics and Steven Hatfill in the 2002 anthrax mailings, the “person of interest” is innocent. But the media published their names and destroyed their lives.
So why publish this guy’s name before he is charged?
InsideNova.com: Normally, we do not publish the names of suspects until they’ve been charged with a crime. But in some major cases, such as this one, the information our reporters gather makes it clear to us that a “person of interest” is indeed a suspect and authorities are preparing to seek charges, even if those charges haven’t yet been filed. We were not the first media outlet to report the name and, although we had the name earlier, we did not publish it until he was arrested on a probation violation charge.
I don’t doubt that your information is correct, that he’s a suspect. (I am a renowned hater of the term “person of interest.”) Fine, they’re investigating him. That’s their job. But what if they finish investigating him and decide he didn’t do the crime? You’ve already put his name out there, associated with murder, forever and ever on the Internet. Are we in the media obligated to consider the impact of OUR actions, which was a bad impact in the Jewell and Hatfill cases?
InsideNova.com:Yes, we do have an obligation to consider how our reporting affects people’s lives. That’s why we do all we can to make sure our information is correct before we run a story such as this. We also have an obligation to our readers to provide as much accurate information as possible and to answer their questions. Our readers, through social media, make it abundantly clear that they want all the information we can provide immediately. So there’s a balancing act for us — to serve our readers AND be fair to the people we write about.
So what was fair about naming this guy before he was charged? What if he never gets charged?
In this case, by the time we identified him in a story, his name had already been revealed by other media outlets. Our reporting convinced us that authorities were preparing to seek a grand jury indictment. So at that point, the fairest thing to do was to accurately report what we knew was going on.
Well it sounds like you had additional credible information that the suspect may be charged. That’s good, though you did not indicate that in the story. But still, and you can have the last word on this, did you consider waiting until he actually was charged?
Once we were sure of our information, we didn’t consider holding off on identifying him.
One element in our decision was the expectations of our readers, who were gathering information on their own. Here’s an exchange we had on Facebook after the initial story, in which we didn’t identify him.
“ and it took a one minute search on 411.com to find out who lives in that apartment; why was that not reported?
InsideNoVA.com: We’re not going to name someone in connection with a homicide investigation if they haven’t been arrested. Or at the very least named a suspect.
U don’t name the suspect yet you post his address?? Seems a little strange.”
At this time, our reporter at the scene knocked on the apartment door several times and got no response. We made repeated calls to him and relatives trying to get comment unsuccessfully. At that point, we didn’t have all the background info from sources and police hadn’t arrested him for anything. So we held off until we were as sure as we could be that we had a solid, accurate story. Soon after, the suspect’s lawyer confirmed what we knew — and much more — in an interview with Northern Virginia Daily.
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Doug Culver is the new vice president of news at WJLA-7 in Rosslyn, having taken over in June. He previously was an executive news producer in Los Angeles, managing editor in seattle Seattle and news director in Tampa.
So why publish this guy’s name before he is charged?
Our Web story focused on the arrest of the individual on unrelated charges and pointed readers to the Inside Nova story. In our Web story, we also reported the individual’s home was searched in connection with the reporter’s murder. Additionally, our story quoted Lt. Hartman of the [Fauquier County] sheriff’s department stating there had been no formal announcement of a “person of interest” in the case.
We are always careful when naming people in connection with crime investigations. No one rule fits all circumstances. After reviewing these circumstances, we decided it was appropriate to name the individual.
Was it only on the Web, for you guys? That would be an important distinction, in my mind.
We did not name the individual on ABC7. As far as I know, he was not named on News Channel 8. As the story developed, our later reporting went in a different direction.
So the guy’s home was searched, and other media were reporting it. What if he’s not the killer? Does the impact on him, personally, play into the decision on whether or not to publish or broadcast a name?
As I mentioned before, no one rule fits all circumstances. We aim to reach a thoughtful decision based on all the facts available and specific circumstances of each story.
Also, I want to provide a different perspective to your statement ”For many years, naming an uncharged suspect was strictly prohibited in journalism.” My experience is quite different. There is no consistency. Standards and norms differ dramatically from place to place.