The tip could come anytime: Casey Anthony has been spotted in the neighborhood.
Once confirmed, do you tweet or post a bulletin on your website? Hold for the evening news or morning edition? Include her address or withhold some details? In light of death threats against Anthony, do you just sit on the information? How will you decide?
My questions were prompted by a Sunday night email from Kurt Luedtke, screenwriter of that classic of journalism ethics, “Absence of Malice,” and former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press (where he was my boss in the ’70s).
“If your newspaper learns that Casey Anthony is living in your area… what of that information, if any, do you print?” Luedtke asked, “Why? Why not?”
My first instinct, even before deciding ground rules for air or publication, would be attempting an interview with Anthony, who earlier this month was found not guilty of killing her two-year-old daughter. Failing that, I’d try to dig out the details of her presence in my community that go beyond street address: Who arranged her stay? What is she doing? Why is she here?
Gathering such news is one thing. Deciding how to present it is trickier, especially when the subject of coverage is such a mix of celebrity and newsmaker.
I’ve never found a better way out of such mazes than paying attention to basic journalistic principles: telling as much of the truth as possible, operating with real independence and minimizing harm.
Poynter’s Al Tompkins helped me think through the practical implications of those principles, pointing out that the real challenge a newsroom will face is not whether to publish Anthony’s whereabouts but to get at “the why, the how and the so what.”
He added: “I would quickly move the discussion away from the question of will we or won’t we publish to looking for ways to make information about her whereabouts meaningful. Find reasons to use the information not withhold it.”
Simply publishing Anthony’s whereabouts – absent any context — amounts to no more than “a tabloid photograph,” Tompkins said.
Timing is also critical. If her whereabouts are discovered this week, it’s a quite different story than it would be if she manages to stay off the radar until she has to show up for her deposition in the civil case against her.
It will be important to consider the various stakeholders in the story. In addition to Anthony herself, people with a stake include her family, her legal team and residents of whatever community she ends up in.
Tompkins listed specific examples of harm that could be done:
- You could put other unwitting residents of an apartment complex or condo unit in the bright public light.
- You could put Anthony in peril.
- You could cause your local police department to have to step up protective patrols.
- You could be unfair to a person who has been convicted of a misdemeanor and has not been proven to be a public threat.
He also came up with some good reasons why the whereabouts information should be published:
- If she worked around children, it could be important for the public to know that.
- If she signed a book, movie or interview deal it means she voluntarily gives up any claim to privacy. She would be thrusting herself back into the public.
- If significant new evidence arises in the case.
And he proposed a range of alternatives that might include:
- Publish everything you know.
- Withhold the information unless you can verbalize a specific journalistic reason for using it.
- Report that she is living in your community but not say exactly where.
- Report that she lives on a particular street but not say which house or apartment.
One of the news organizations with the biggest stakes in this story is the Orlando Sentinel.
“As the hometown news organization, we have aggressively covered the Casey Anthony saga” Sentinel editor Mark Russell told me by email Monday, “and we are working to figure out where she has landed, so to speak, after her release from jail early Sunday morning.”
The interest in knowing where Anthony lands is rooted in a simple news value. Where she lands could speak volumes on her possible next move. If she is in Los Angeles or New York, for example, it could suggest a visit with the talk-show host in one of those cities.
If she stays in Orlando, it raises some complicated issues of whether she reunites with her family and whether the Sheriff’s office would be obliged to provide a security detail to minimize harm. If she goes to a rehab clinic, that’s an obvious angle on Anthony seeking treatment.
In any event — to minimize potential harm — we would not pinpoint for readers Anthony’s exact location, if we found her. We would be circumspect on that information, preferring to say that she is starting her new chapter in a specific city, which we would name.
They’re obviously talking about various scenarios in Russell’s newsroom. How about yours?
Some questions to get you started in deciding what to do if Anthony shows up in your neighborhood:
- What’s your journalistic purpose in airing or publishing this information? Especially if you decide to explain your decisions in print, on the air or online, you’ll want to look for something beyond prurient interest.
- What balance should you strike in maximizing the level of detail in your reports and minimizing harm? Considering potential damage to stakeholders makes so much more sense pre-publication than post.
- How can you make these decisions as independently as possible? This includes independence from your own point of view — perhaps especially if you’re convinced of Anthony’s guilt.
- What are the most interesting stories about Anthony’s presence in your area? Can you assemble a tick-tock that reveals the people and connections that got her from jail in Orlando to a street in your town?
- How does your pursuit of this story stir up ideas for more provocative coverage of other celebrities and newsmakers in your midst?
Here’s Tompkins’ take on stories to consider:
If Casey Anthony lived in my community I would consider it to be significantly less of a threat than the hundreds of hardened felons who we KNOW are living in my community. Consider spending your energy on the issue of how many people are living in your community on parole or probation. How many of them have been convicted of serious violent crimes? How many are repeat offenders?
It could be an entry to the story of how most convicts will someday be back in society. It could also be an interesting story to see what kind of psychological preparation inmates are given to re-enter society. In Florida, for example, you can track “supervised offenders.” Here in Pinellas County, Florida, where I live, there are more than 8,000 people on probation or parole.
Tompkins had one more good idea: explain your coverage decisions to some of your biggest stakeholders – your viewers, readers, listeners and users.
Al Tompkins contributed to this report.