Going to Extremes
Off-the-record word that Richard A. Jewell was a suspect in the Olympic bombing was enough to trigger a full-scale media frenzy. Some restraint would have helped.
Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
THREE DAYS AFTER THE BOMBING at Centennial Olympic Park, Christina Headrick, an intern at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, drove to security guard Richard A. Jewell's apartment in northeast Atlanta.
Her assignment was to stake out Jewell, the man hailed for discovering the bomb and evacuating hundreds of people from the area. The paper had heard that law enforcement authorities were beginning to have doubts about Jewell's story, and her mission was to watch what he did and check out who came or left his apartment. When she arrived at the apartment complex she spotted three cars, all occupied by men in sunglasses watching Jewell's apartment. By the pool, other men had their binoculars trained on the same target.
Headrick called in several times to report that Jewell--who had been treated as a hero during an interview with Katie Couric only hours before--was clearly under surveillance. Headrick's discovery, buttressed by the fact that the FBI had interviewed one of Jewell's former employers that morning and by off-the-record information from several law enforcement sources, led the Atlanta Journal to tear up its afternoon Olympics special edition on July 30. The new banner story proclaimed that Jewell had become "the focus of the federal investigation" in the bombing that killed one person and injured 111 others.
The new edition hit the streets around 4:30 p.m. Half an hour later, a CNN announcer was reading the Journal story aloud on the air. The networks led with the development that night. The next day, almost all major newspapers--with the notable exception of the New York Times--carried stories about Jewell's suspect status on page one, above the fold.
A day later, the public knew more about Jewell's life than most people know about their own neighbors. Jewell, 33, was publicly psychoanalyzed as a victim of the "hero syndrome," a condition in which a person creates a dangerous, life-threatening situation and then comes to the rescue. The security guard was tagged a police "wannabe."
"This much was clear: He had a driving desire, even a need, to be a cop," concluded Boston Globe reporters Brian McGrory and Bob Hohler in a profile of Jewell on July 31. The unattributed 378-word Journal story naming Jewell as a suspect before he had been detained, arrested, charged or indicted triggered a media frenzy. The prominent play and exhaustive, often unflattering, detail that characterized the coverage left the widespread impression that law enforcement officials had swiftly nabbed the culprit behind the terrible Olympic tragedy. But were the media being manipulated by authorities? And in their zeal to respond quickly to a competitive, high-interest story, did the media go too far, inalterably tarnishing Jewell in the process?
"The news media's focus on the background and character of the suspect at this stage of the investigation is entirely out of line," says Deni Elliott, an ethics professor at the University of Montana. "Unless news organizations can provide some good reason why we need to have this information, which is a violation of his privacy, at this stage it's illegitimate to give out this information."
Says Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter, "I don't mean to portray any of this as an easy call in an extraordinarily competitive environment." But, he adds, "there's a way in which you can report that he's a suspect that doesn't constitute the massive character assassination and invasion of privacy that happened to him. There's a world of difference in reporting he's a suspect and camping out at his apartment, writing detailed profiles and having psychologists on the air talking about him."