Los Angeles Times | Gawker | LAist | KTTV
Christopher Jordan Dorner posted a manifesto on his Facebook page Feb. 4 before allegedly embarking on a killing spree. Manifestos once presented ethical quandaries to news organizations: “On the one hand, publishing a manifesto gives an alleged terrorist or criminal exactly what he or she wants: a public stage on which to spout off before committing a cowardly, violent act,” Poynter faculty Al Tompkins wrote in 2010.
On the other hand, as journalists, our job is to seek truth and tell it as fully as possible, according to the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. Why would we shield the public from an unfiltered look inside the mind of a killer?
The question of whether to publish the manifesto could seem quaint: Ted Kaczynski wanted The New York Times and The Washington Post to publish his Unabomber manifesto in 1995 because they were two of the nation’s most prominent publishing platforms. But Dorner’s message was published on a service used by 1 billion people, and it’s since been copied-and-pasted elsewhere on the Web; he also sent a package to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
The Los Angeles Times quoted extensively from Dorner’s manifesto in a blog post; Gawker picked out odd passages from it and provided links to the whole thing. LAist ran the manifesto with names redacted. KTTV in L.A. removed names and “redacted some offensive language contained within this statement.”
“Since we are no longer the gatekeeper, I don’t think the question is do you publish it,” Poynter’s Kelly McBride writes in an email. Instead, she says, the question is: “What context can you bring?”
Is it the stark ravings of a paranoid guy? Can you have a professional analyze it? Do you only publish parts of it? In this particular case, the guy is suggesting that the LAPD is a corrupt place and he is referring to very specific internal affairs investigations. Can you get the records for those investigations? Obviously that won’t happen tomorrow. But someone should be checking that out at some point. Maybe not right now, while he’s on the lam. And not to suggest that his killing innocent people is a justified response to the corruption, but just because the question has now been raised. Looking at the IA files might shed some more light.
If you think about this question from the audience point of view, it’s not like they won’t find this manifesto published online by someone. A journalist’s responsibility is to help people make sense of it. Often that means bringing even more information and expertise into the equation.