Boston Globe mistake raises questions about how media cover sex offenders
The Boston Globe wrote a Monday feature about a couple that "found love at Occupy Boston." The story, which was accompanied by a big photo of the two lovebirds kissing, reads:
"Holding hands outside the food tent before the encampment disbanded, they were the archetype of an Occupy couple - he, a red-headed Mainer with tattoos on his arms; she, a petite upstate New York girl with a heart-shaped face and a boyish haircut, wearing a knit grandmother sweater three sizes too big."
But here's what the Globe story didn't say: the man, 25-year-old Robert Stitham, is a Level 3 sex offender convicted of two counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. The Boston Herald today pointed out Stitham's history in a story that takes the Globe to task for the omission.
"Looks like somebody forgot to Google," is the opening line of the Herald's story. The article notes how easy it was to find the information about Stitham's past:
A quick Google search of his name turns up his sex offender notification — complete with his photo — on the website of the police department in Plymouth, where Stitham grew up. A search on the state Sex Offender Registry Board website shows Stitham now lives in a homeless shelter in Boston.
Globe deputy managing editor for local news Jennifer Peter told the paper, “We were unaware of his status and would have opted not to do the story had we known."
The Globe also added an editor's note to the online version of its story:
Editor’s note: This story about relationships that began during Occupy Boston featured a man, Robert Stitham, who is a registered sex offender, according to state records. Had his status been discovered during reporting, the story would not have been published
Stitham's girlfriend is aware of his sex offender status. "Yes, I am perfectly fine with it," she told the Herald.
The person who didn't know about Stitham's criminal past was the Globe reporter, and therefore Globe readers. That's undeniably a big problem, a glaring omission.
But what if Stitham had disclosed this to the journalist, or if it had come out in the course of reporting the story? Should the Globe have killed the piece, as Peter and the editor's note both say it would have?
I emailed Peter to ask for more details about why the Globe would have spiked the story.
"It was a feature story, purely discretionary, about romance that blossomed during Occupy Boston," she wrote. "If we had learned he was a sex offender, that would have changed the nature of the story. We do not have a policy one way or another on featuring sex offenders. We use our best judgment."
I asked her if the fact that Stitham's girlfriend knew of his crimes made any difference. Peter said it didn't. She did say a story "could have" been written if the reporter had known about the man's sex offender status.
"But I believe we would have looked for another couple or abandoned the story," she said. "Again, it seems like we would be telling a different story."
So it seems that what the Globe is saying is that, given Stitham's history, it wouldn't have written a love story about this couple. Knowing the criminal history ahead of time would have killed the romantic story, but could have led to another narrative.
Given that the Herald said all it took was a simple Google search to find Stitham's criminal past, I also asked Peter if the Globe has a policy for checking criminal records of sources.
"There’s no hard and fast rule," she said. "But in general, we scrub people we’re featuring in a prominent way. In this case, a Google search was done – of the man’s name along with his last known address, in Portland – and it yielded nothing. (Try it). Had the reporter Googled his name by itself, we would have seen the sex offender details. We should have done that."