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How trusting should reporters be of law enforcement?

SHOWCASE | December 27, 2007

A small paper in Virginia recently produced an extraordinary 24-page special report on the authorities' relentless pursuit of the wrong man in a serial-killing case -- relating a series of missed clues, bad judgments, false statements and broken promises. Pamela Gould of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star writes that the prosecution of Darrell Rice is a case study in why reporters need to be more skeptical of what police and prosecutors assert without proof – particularly when they are making assertions that go far beyond the actual charges.

By Pamela Gould

The project was launched as a result of coverage of the Prince William Circuit Court trial of Darrell Rice, a man accused of abducting one woman. The case had far broader implications, however, because police linked that case to a series of incidents in which women drivers were pulled over and one was killed. Thus, by extension, Rice was accused of being the killer dubbed the "29 Stalker." Beyond that, Rice already had been unsuccessfully pursued for two other killings about 40 miles away.

The abduction case ended with nothing resolved and left the newspaper with several questions including who killed these women and why authorities were doggedly pursuing this man whom his attorneys, all working pro bono, repeatedly said was innocent. In the end, the newspaper's report focused on three points: that law enforcement doggedly pursued Rice absent anything to directly link him to the crimes, that, simultaneously, law enforcement reneged on its pledge to thoroughly and forensically evaluate a known serial killer, and that the three slayings remain unsolved.

How trusting should reporters be of law enforcement?

Reporters need to remain skeptical about everything they hear and consistently seek proof. That applies to every beat and every source. On the police beat, reporters begin with one-sided information and too readily rely on it as truth. The concept of innocent until proven guilty can too easily be forgotten in police reporting where information comes out first and foremost from police and prosecutors who carefully control what they release. By the time a defense is mounted, the public and, far too often reporters, have already assumed guilt.

Reporting this story provided a reminder that journalists need to question everything throughout the process, listen carefully to both sides, research consistently, look for information that can be corroborated and continually keep an open mind. It also illustrated that repeatedly printing information beyond the actual charges can lead to that information being seen as fact, whereas it is simply another part of the allegations.

This project also reinforced the importance of watchdog reporting, that it is our duty to follow up when public officials make pledges, to see if they actually did what they said they were doing and going to do.

Finally, reporters need to remember that police and prosecutors have a goal of solving crimes and closing cases and that they are subject to a variety of pressures in trying to meet those goals. Questioning them should not be viewed as intrusive but as the duty of journalists, who, like every citizen, should be interested in justice.

Verify Before Trusting
Posted by Tai Kan -
01/14/2008, 12:56 PM

Reporters should not trust law enforcement any more than any other source. The key to all accurate reporting is verification. As with other sources, if law enforcement cannot point to evidence to verify its claims, the odds are that it is because law enforcement lacks that evidence. A few years ago the San Jose Mercury News did an excellent series spotlighting cases in which prosecutors and other law enforcement officials were found by appellate courts to have engaged in misconduct, resulting in the conviction of some clearly innocent individuals as well as a number of other questionable convictions. To my surprise, when I discussed that series with a prosecutor, he informed me that the DA's office would continue its policy of aggressive prosecution regardless of the record showing that it resulted in some erroneous convictions. Sadly, for some members of law enforcement the pursuit of victory is more important than the pursuit of justice.

Gould's Special Report: Who Killed Her Daughter?

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