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A Person of Interest

by Alicia C. Shepard
Sep 18, 2009

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Alicia C. Shepard

When a Yale University lab technician was questioned in the death of a graduate student Wednesday morning, the specter of two men was very much on the minds of NPR editors.

One was Richard Jewell. The other was Dr. Steven J. Hatfill.

Jewell was a security guard who became the focus of an FBI investigation into the bombing at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park in 1996 that killed one woman and injured 111.

Hatfill was a former government scientist whose name was leaked to the press in 2002 as someone connected to the anthrax mailings in 2001 that killed five people.

Neither man was ever arrested or charged with a crime.

But the media made their lives miserable after law enforcement sources anonymously named each man a "person of interest" in the high-profile cases.

So it's understandable that NPR editors were cautious when an Associated Press story was fed to NPR early on Sept. 16. The story said that Raymond Clark III was a "person of interest" in the death of Yale graduate student Annie Le. Clark, 24, an animal research technician, at that point had not been charged with a crime and had been released from New Haven police custody.

"Clark has been described as a person of interest, not a suspect, in Le's death," read an AP story posted on npr.org at 10:32 a.m. "New Haven Police Chief James Lewis said police were hoping to compare DNA taken from Clark's hair, fingernails and saliva to more than 150 pieces of evidence collected from the crime scene."

Randy Lilleston, a supervising editor for NPR digital, was the first editor to spot the AP story. The question became: should NPR use Clark's name even though news organizations commonly identify someone associated with a crime only if they are arrested or charged?

"The answer clearly was yes it was appropriate to identify him because the police chief had openly and publicly identified him," said Lilleston, "and because in my opinion it was very newsworthy." In the Hatfill and Jewell cases, information was leaked to the media by unnamed sources. By contrast, Clark's name was announced at a well-attended press conference with the police chief.

Mark Memmott, who blogs on NPR's The Two-Way, posted an item at 8:45 a.m. about Clark's release. After that, a discussion ensued among NPR editors about the appropriateness of using Clark's name.

"Richard Jewell was very much in my mind," said Stuart Seidel, deputy managing editor. Seidel sent an email to all news staff at 12:19 p.m. explaining that NPR would continue to use Clark's name, but anyone reporting on the story must mention that Clark had not been charged and was released after questioning.

Are those caveats enough? In this case, it's now a moot point. Clark was arrested for Le's murder Thursday.

Even so, the question remains whether the press should publicize the name of a "person of interest." In this case, the police chief's televised press conference was pretty close to an arrest and could hardly be ignored. But in general, I'd say not. The potential damage to someone's life is so great, as is the margin for error when police are under intense pressure to come up with suspects in high-profile cases. Jewell said the media went after him "like piranha on a bleeding cow."

Both Jewell and Hatfill won generous financial compensation for the pain and disruption they endured. But it's unlikely the money compensated for the loss of the lives they led before each became a "person of interest."

"There are parts of the old Richard that aren't there anymore," Jewell told The New York Times in 1997. "Who's going to give me back my old life? Who's going to give me back the trust, the trust that I used to have in people?" Jewell died in 2007 at 44.

But there's another twist to Clark's case that is likely to come up repeatedly. Because the AP is fed automatically to NPR's news website, Clark's name appeared on npr.org — though not on the homepage— before NPR editors even had a chance to talk about whether to use it. The AP autofeed appears under NPR's News section on the right under AP Latest Headlines.

However, before the Clark story got more prominent play on NPR's homepage or The Two-Way, editor Lilleston had both seen and approved it.

"The automated feed of AP copy is not especially prominent on NPR.org," said Mark Stencel, NPR's managing editor digital news. "That said, we, like many news organizations that use those feeds on their sites, are somewhat — but not entirely — at the mercy of AP's editorial decisions. Like many of those same news organizations, we signal our own editorial thinking with the prominence and emphasis we give those reports. There are times we will post wire stories only after NPR has independently confirmed the details."

Autofeeds certainly increase the possibility of something being published that NPR might not be prepared to publish.

Just ask the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It had decided to not run the controversial AP photo of a dying Marine. But the AP slide show wound up on the Plain Dealer's website as part of an automatic feed. Only hours later did someone from the paper realize the mistake.

The same thing happened for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Houston Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press.

The lesson to be learned here? If a news organization wants to have its own editorial standards, even in this era of Internet publishing, it will have to be eagle-eyed about everything posted on its website — and will have to make sure that everyone on the staff understands what those standards are.

(In October 1996, I wrote about the media frenzy surrounding theJewell case for American Journalism Review.)

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