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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ga. Supreme Court declines hearing on hero Richard Jewell case

Lawyer Lin Wood, left, and Richard Jewell in 2006. Jewell died in 2007.
  • CL File
  • Lawyer Lin Wood, left, and Richard Jewell in 2006. Jewell died in 2007.

Yesterday, the bulldog Supremes denied the Jewell estate's petition for certiorari in its ongoing case against the AJC and several staffers. You'll recall that '96 Olympic bombing hero Jewell, who passed away in 2007, was identified by the AJC (and other news organizations that followed its lead) as a suspect in the bombing. Jewell always felt that his reputation was permanently damaged by the paper's coverage, and the subsequent media attention that followed.

Despite the paper's legal victory — an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is his lawyer's only option, and that doesn't sound likely at this point — AJC's actions are grounds for a still-relevant debate in media circles. Given that social media has put pressures on daily newspapers to be even more aggressive in breaking news, the lessons from the case seem especially worth discussing these days. (This despite the tone of the AJC and its lawyers. The wording in this story — describing the case as having "dragged on"; the long uninterrupted chest-thumping by the paper's legal house organ; etc. — made me queasy.)

A great place to start if you're looking for background is the excellent case study done by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. Longtime business and government reporter Ron Ostrow details how the coverage of Jewell came about, the thinking inside the newspaper, and the results of those decisions.

Then I would offer this excerpt from Ostrow if I were to prime the debate pump:

[M]uch is troubling about the Journal-Constitution's first story naming Jewell as a suspect. At the very least, it provides a cautionary tale for the future because, from large pieces of evidence and small ones, it seems clear that concerns about fairness or the possibility of being wrong were not central to the reporting. In the July 30th story, there was no mention of what police were lacking in their developing case against Jewell. Of course journalists cannot be expected to know the entirety of what police have and don't have, but they can bring attention to missing information, to the gaps. The AJC's initial story offered little in this regard. In the largest gap of all, that there was no comment from Jewell on the fact that the paper was naming him as the focus of the federal investigation, the paper's only mention was, "He refused to open the door when a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution knocked." Testimony shows that they did not give him the opportunity to comment. [The reporter] says he called and got no answer; the intern knocked at his door but did not mention the forthcoming story.

I encourage you to read the whole thing. Given Jewell's heroics on that day, continuing this debate seems the least we can do.

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