Thursday, May 03, 2007

Journalism and the death penalty

There are a lot of highs and lows when it comes to the way journalists cover the death penalty in the U.S. We've seen some highs lately -- the outstanding reporting by the Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for instance, in uncovering cases where four inmates who were executed were almost certainly innocent.

And we've seen newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News and Birmingham News courageously re-examine -- and then abandon -- their longstanding support for capital punishment.

But the other side of the coin is that newspapers have not often been profiles in courage when it comes to examining flaws in the death penalty system. All too often, for instance, newspapers accept the conviction of a person as proof positive of that person's guilt.

I was reminded of this late last night when the following essay written by Dale Wisely suddenly popped up in my email box. Dale is a member of our Alabama affiliate, Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty. (Slightly off-point, but Alabama this evening is scheduled to execute Aaron Jones, despite the fact that a lawsuit challenging the state's lethal injection protocol is pending.)

Is it time to revisit this journalistic practice?

By Dale Wisely

I recently read a newspaper story about a man on death row whose case I know well. To be fair, I am not certain about his guilt or innocence. I do not believe he got a fair trial and I do believe it is possible that he is innocent or, at least, that the particulars of his participation in the crime are unclear. I am completely convinced cases exist in which Americans have been convicted of crimes they did not commit.

I was not surprised by the language in the newspaper article that declared, flatly, that this man committed the crime of which he was convicted. I am no expert on journalism, but careful reading of newspapers and scrutiny of other news media make it clear what the common practice is. Until a person is convicted, most news outlets insert the term "alleged," and variations on that word, to refer to the crime and the accused. Once convicted, it is commonplace that news accounts shift to the declarative. John Doe murdered Jane Doe in 1999. Jane Doe was raped by John Doe.

I would not argue that in doing that journalists are acting contrary to established journalistic ethics. I would argue that journalists, in light of modern knowledge of the criminal justice system, ought to reevaluate the practice of treating a criminal conviction as an indicator of fact regarding a crime. I believe reasonable people, even those who tend to favor the death penalty, will refrain from saying that every person ever convicted of a crime indeed committed that crime. We now know, for example, that at least 123 people convicted of capital crimes in this country and sentenced to death have walked free from prison after evidence of their innocence emerged. To be fair, one cannot say with absolute conviction that every last one of those individuals were innocent. But it ought to be enough to convince reasonably open-minded people that error occurs in the system. Enough error that honest journalists, all committed to reporting the facts, ought to reconsider putting faith in the infallibility of a criminal conviction. A small adjustment would be required. Instead of declaring that a person committed a crime, journalists could report that he or she was convicted of the crime. That practice, already adopted by many, would not compromise the story and the journalist could know that she is reporting a fact.


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Richard Lindo, freedom said...


I do agree with you to get rid of

the death penalty.

People need a true and fair justice

system. Not just to sent to jail

and die.

megan walley said...

Deat Mr. Dale Wisely,

I enjoyed this segment that you have written very much I wish there was something as us American Citizens could od to help abolish this horrible disaster. Please let me know if i could be of any help to you.,

Megan Walley