Oct 1 1996

Journalists as Gamblers

Tumbling dice (cc photo: Josh Kenzer)

(cc photo: Josh Kenzer)

Long Island (N.Y.) Newsday (8/2/96) ran an article about press coverage of Richard Jewell, whom news outlets widely named as a suspect in the Atlanta Olympic bombing despite the absence of any charges or publicly disclosed evidence. The piece included a quote from Jim Naughton, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who said: “If it turns out that this guy is totally innocent, then it will be another chink in the armor of the press, whose credibility will suffer.”

But why should the credibility of the press depend on whether Jewell is innocent or not? Journalists are not psychics, and they should not be gamblers, betting that the outcome of a story will vindicate them; they should publish stories they can stand behind whether a suspect turns out to be guilty or not. That’s what makes the presumption of innocence a sound journalistic policy.

Too often, coverage in the Jewell case followed this example, taken from a story in the same edition of Newsday: “The Associated Press reported that a Washington law enforcement source said Jewell had told an acquaintance–a fellow law enforcement officer–that he owned an anarchist book, which might have contained instructions on making bombs.”

In other words, a wire service reported an anonymous third-hand story about a book Jewell might have read that might have contained information on bombs. Reporting like this lowers the credibility of journalism, no matter who the Olympics bomber turns out to be.