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Case Highlights Quandary About Naming Suspects
The name of a Yale University lecturer was linked in print and on the airwaves Thursday with the stabbing death last week of a female Yale senior.
WVIT, Channel 30, said the lecturer was "said to be a suspect."
The New Haven Register on Wednesday reported that a "Yale educator who taught Suzanne Jovin is the lead suspect in the police investigation into her murder." The following day, the newspaper named and quoted the Yale lecturer, who had been Miss Jovin's senior thesis adviser, as saying he is innocent and "never hurt her."
The Courant decided not to include the lecturer's name in its coverage Thursday but reported he was questioned twice by New Haven police since the Dec. 4 stabbing and that his property had been searched.
For any news operation, deciding whether to use names in connection with criminal matters is, or should be, a wrenching one.
"The standard approach would be not to name a suspect in a police investigation, barring exceptional circumstances," said Robert M. Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in Florida.
"In some cases, news organizations will name an individual who is being questioned as a material witness, or as a source of information because that person's name is essential to the facts of reporting a story."
Sometimes, Steele said, revealing a name can have positive effects.
"In some cases, it actually serves in a positive way to an individual to be identified and to have their role explained. It's inescapable in a murder of this nature that there will be rumors, that there will be considerable assumptions being made. If reporters can explain more of what's going on, it may spike some of the rumors and diminish some of the assumptions," Steele added.
The Richard Jewell case is the casebook example of careless disclosure. Jewell was targeted by the FBI as a prime suspect in the 1996 Olympic Games bombing, and his name was leaked to the Atlanta Journal- Constitution as a suspect.
"He was basically guilty in the press without any charges having been filed," said Steve Geimann, chairman of the national Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee.
But the errors in the Jewell case were complex.
"I think one can still make a reasonable argument . . . that naming Jewell as an individual who was being considered as a suspect was legitimate," Steele said. "But the problems were after that, how he was portrayed as an individual. Many news organizations went beyond naming him as a potential suspect who was being investigated to saying that he, in fact, fit the profile of a bomber.
"That's why I think that Jewell's case is a very cautionary tale, but it was not one in which we should come away saying `Never identify a suspect.' I don't think that's a legitimate position to take. There are probably hundreds of people on the Yale campus who are aware of some connection between the Yale student and the lecturer."
That, and the fact that the lecturer chose to appear on-camera Wednesday night to stress his innocence.
Said Geimann: "If an individual is going out to clear his name and is willingly answering questions from reporters, that person has elected to go public. At that point, in my opinion, if a decision was made to run the person's name it would not be an ethical transgression."
On the other hand, he said, it would be "totally appropriate" not to print the man's name.
The Associated Press included the name in its Thursday reports, but a spokesman in the Hartford office declined to comment.
Clifford Teutsch, managing editor of The Courant, said: "Our policy is that we generally only name people when they are arrested. We sometimes name people when an arrest warrant is issued, and depending on newsworthiness we may occasionally name people when police identify them as prime suspects. And in this case, since that person hadn't risen to that level, we didn't name him."
A call to the New Haven Register was not returned Thursday.
WTIC, Channel 61, News Director Paul Lewis said the station reported that the lecturer was questioned. "We frankly did not have an interview with him," he said. "We were very careful to pick our words quite specifically."
Billy Otwell, news director at WTNH, Channel 8, agreed. "The phrasing had to be very careful not to call him a suspect," Otwell said. "The police have not said, you know, we suspect this guy did it. They didn't say that."
Liz Grey, vice president of News at WVIT, Channel 30, said, "Our sources confirmed that he was a suspect. He himself confirmed that police had questioned him and he also granted us an interview."
(Incidentally, Grey said the lecturer had been an intern at the station, and "received college credit for his internship.")
"We have a rather lengthy editorial process and ethical decision- making process that we institute daily here," said Grey, citing the recent case involving a Yale professor, Antonio Lasaga, who was charged with receiving and possessing child pornography.
"I didn't feel comfortable with our information, and we did not report his name for several days," she said, adding that others in the media, including The Courant, did.
Bill Sweeney, an editor at The Courant, said that the newspaper printed Lasaga's name before charges were filed but that the decision was propelled by other "public" events, including Lasaga's resignation as master of Saybrook College, his announced leave of absence and an FBI raid on his university apartment.