Richard Jewell's only crime was trying to help

By Sheryl McCarthy

In the photographs accompanying news stories about Richard Jewell's untimely death, he looks like the truly ordinary guy he was in life. He was just unlucky to get caught up in an extraordinary event, and as a result was subjected to a public mauling.

Jewell was performing his security guard's job in an exemplary way when he spotted an unattended backpack in a section of Atlanta's Olympic Park, alerted the police, and helped evacuate the park after a bomb exploded there. But the sweet taste of being hailed as a national hero turned bitter when he became the target of overzealous news organizations that ran with, and hyped, stories about the FBI investigation into whether he had actually planted the bomb.

Jewell was cleared a few months later, and another man eventually confessed to the crime. But as Bob Steele, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute puts it, in the public consciousness the "Scarlet Letter remained embedded on Richard Jewell" until the day he died.

He became a symbol of the media's tendency to rush to judgment in high-profile crime stories, to convict a suspect based on information gleaned from law enforcement and other sources, sometimes before the person is even charged with a crime. Journalism students study the excesses of the Jewell coverage to learn how journalists shouldn't behave. And in newsrooms around the country, reporters, editors and executive producers covering big crime stories may caution themselves to remember what happened to Richard Jewell.

But the temptation to overreach remains strong. In the Duke University rape case, which mesmerized the press for a year, the tone of some press reports in the beginning was to treat the accused students as guilty. This was buttressed by the accusatory banter of the pseudo-journalists and "experts" on the TV talk shows, and by the public pronouncements of the prosecutor. Over time, through thorough reporting, newspaper reporters became skeptical of the evidence, and raised questions about it. In the end, their evidence revealed to be shallow, the prosecutor was forced to back off.

Defense attorneys constantly complain about their clients' being "tried in the press." But as Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky puts it, that's probably the wrong phrase. "If it's truly tried in the press, through probing and skepticism of the evidence, that's great. Instead the press rushes to conviction, and isn't sufficiently skeptical, so you have problems."

Among the evidence some press reported as pointing to Jewell's guilt was the fact that he owned a backpack; that he gave interviews after the bombing; that he had had difficulties on prior law enforcement jobs; and that he had received training about explosives.

I've often been struck by the attitude of members of my profession that we're entitled to publish any tidbit of information we can get our hands on, no matter how inflammatory, even though it could later turn out to be wrong, and even when it isn't really newsworthy. Instead of being skeptical of the information, our zeal to be out ahead of the pack can outweigh our caution.

There will always be a conflict between the media's desire to be competitive on stories and the interests of the people who are our subjects. The growing pressure for instantaneous reporting and the ceaseless chatter of talking heads competing for who can be the most provocative, creates a feeding frenzy that makes it hard to extract the truth.

Richard Jewell's death should remind us to choose our language carefully, to admit there are things both we and the law enforcement people don't know, not to take at face value what either side gives us, and to always get the other side.

Fortunately, experience has shown that juries are often able to decide cases based on the evidence before them, instead of on what's been in the news. But the damage to an individual reputation can be almost as painful as being convicted of a crime, as it was for Richard Jewell.

McCarthy can be reached at mccart731@aol.com

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

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