Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where Did All the Ethics Go?

In response to one of my previous blog postings I came across the article "A Newspaper Defends Naming Jurors" published by The New York Times. It refers back to an article published by The Connecticut Post on September 9, 2007 that dealt with the jury selection process in a court case involving the death penalty. Accompanying the story was an illustration of 18 empty chairs with personal information about each juror including their name, hometown and occupation. After the article was released two of the jurors mentioned were excused from duty after expressing concern for their personal safety. I bogged on this issue and posed the question of just who exactly the newspaper was trying to inform and whether they were in the wrong for doing so.

In The New York Times article I learned that James H. Smith, editor of The Connecticut Post, was defending his decision to publish the story. His reasoning stemmed from the fact that there is no law prohibiting the publication of jurors' names, though sometimes judges will decide not to make the names public. Mr. Smith offers no apologies for the article and stated that:

The U.S. Constitution calls for a public trial with an impartial jury. How do you know if the jury is impartial if you don't know who they are and something about them?

I don't agree with Mr. Smith's reasoning and after hearing the facts of the case I am given a clear idea why the jurors feared retribution. The defendant, Russell Peeler Jr., was convicted of ordering his younger brother to kill Leroy Brown, 8, and his mother, Karen Clarke, in 1999. Mr. Peeler Jr. wanted Leroy Brown killed because he was scheduled to testify against him for killing his mother's boyfriend. The jury was to decide if Mr. Peeler Jr. should spend life in prison or die by lethal injection. With such high stakes one could easily understand why a juror would not particularly want the public, including friends of Mr. Peeler Jr., to know any information about them including where they were from.

A journalism ethics professor from the University of Maryland commented on the release of juror information by saying that:

It could also expose them to pressure from advocates on both sides of the death penalty. Newspapers need to balance the public's right to know with the potential risk of harm to jurors.

There were other alternatives to write about that would have given just as substantive details about the jurors without specifically naming them. You can still get a feel for a person and their impartiality by learning their background without specifically knowing their name. I very much stick to my originally response to hearing of the article in that journalistically and ethically a line was crossed and poor judgments were made. As a reporter it is your job to be objective and ethical towards all parties involved. By publishing such personal information about the 18 jurors the article was no longer simply informing the public.

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