By Bob Collins
June 23, 1999
The arrest of a Richfield man on the suspicion that he abducted Katie Poirier
from a Moose Lake convenience store has reignited a debate in Minnesota
newsrooms over whether the identity of suspects should be identified before they're charged.
VARIOUS FORMS OF THE POLICY
exist in nearly every newsroom in the Twin Cities
even though adherence to it is spotty. Attempts to clearly define its
application are often clumsy. Limiting public access to the names of suspects
in high-profile cases often carries an additional ethical dilemma of balancing
the public's right to know with an obligation to protect the rights of the
Not since Minneapolis' Brad Dunlap case has the issue been as debated in
newsrooms as it has been this week. In the Dunlap case, the husband of a
missing woman was named by police as the prime suspect. Virtually every news
organization in the Twin Cities -including those which, this week, withheld
names in the Poirier case - identified him as a suspect even though Dunlap has
never been charged with a crime.
Three news organizations - WCCO Television, Minnesota Public Radio, and the
Associated Press - refused to reveal Donald Blom's name until he was
charged Wednesday afternoon. Each says it only does so when a person is charged
by prosecutors with a crime.
"It's not an ethical dilemma," says Ted Canova, news director of WCCO
Television. "The big dilemma is if he's not charged. In one way we would look
very credible that here's a man that everybody else has named and identified, but the cops didn't have enough to charge him. And we were the only ones to
protect his privacy and his reputation. On the other hand, knowing what we
know about what he's suspected of doing, the dilemma is: he could be a public
threat. If he's a public threat, then we have a dilemma over whether to name
But Mark Ginther, the assistant news director at KSTP Television, says the
decision to identify the man arrested was resolved when he felt comfortable
police had probable cause to file charges. "Prior to any charges being filed,
there was a news conference that was held, a picture was handed out , and
specific details of his arrest were revealed including naming all of the
agencies which participated in the arrest," Ginther said. " Coupled with what
we were able to put together with his background, we came to the conclusion
that we were comfortable with running this because it's unusual for an
arresting agency to provide all that information prior to any charges being
Ginther says his station often withholds the identity of an accused until
charges are filed because it confirms that probable cause for an arrest
exists. He says the policy isn't an attempt to protect an individual's right
to privacy; it exists to be sure the prosecutors are sure about the suspect.
He says the news conference on Monday wiped out any doubts that authorities
were sure they had the right man.
For Gary Gilson, executive director of the Minnesota News Council, there's
little wavering on an appropriate policy."What is it about Americans that makes
us so impatient to see justice completed on the day of the arrest?" he asks.
"Why can't we wait until the trial process runs its natural course?"
Gilson sees the no-names-until-charged policy as protecting individual
rights. " Suppose you were arrested and you were innocent and some news
organization used your name and used a quote from the arresting officer saying
'I'm confident we have the right man?'" says Gilson. " You might wind up in jail
for a long time. As much as everybody hates the person who
kidnapped and perhaps murdered this young woman, everybody wants to see
him arrested, tried and convicted and put away. We don't know until the jury
makes up its mind whether he did it or not. And, of course, the jury makes that
Even WCCO's Canova, however, sees the issue less as protecting Blom's rights as
much as one of forcing authorities to prove their case.
"It's not taking at face value that the cops have the right person. This
goes back to the checks and balance of law enforcement," Canova says.
Ted Canova, WCCO TV News Director
Photo courtesy WCCO
Scott Liben, news director of KSTP, says any policy that focuses on
withholding information from the public invariably leads to more decisions on
withholding additional information. "What other elements do you omit?" he asks."Do you not explain that he had a home in the area? If you do explain it, but
you don't identify him, then don't you cast negative light potentially on
everybody on that approximate description who has a home in the area? I don't
think it's always the moral high ground to withhold information."
"The authorities released the picture and the I.D. - it's a public record,"
said Tom Lindner, news director of KARE Television, which has a policy against
naming suspects, but did in this case. "Because of its high visibility, you have
to re-examine your rules. We'd rather be known as people who released
information rather than people who withheld information."
Gilson says Minnesota Public Radio and other news organizations which refused
to name Blom, erred in carrying the comments of Carlton County Sheriff Dave
Seboe, who declared on Monday that he was convinced Blom is guilty
of abducting Poirier. All news executives interviewed rejected that view,
But many organizations that protected Blom's privacy by withholding his name, had no qualms reporting on his extensive criminal background, place of
employment, residence, and aliases used. "The people closest to the man know
who it is," Canova says. "It's about protecting a person during the judicial
process but also getting as much information as possible out to the public.
It's a balancing act."
Gilson said those news outlets risked undoing the protection they've extended
to the accused. "If a news organization is so careful not to use someone's
name, it ought to be equally careful in generalizing the background so that
they can't be pinpointed," Gilson says. "If they go further than that, they're
guilty of trying to have it both ways. That wouldn't be very ethical."
Indeed, at Minnesota Public Radio and other outlets, details of Blom's background - carried without attribution - spawned several talk shows that
focused on such issues as how a convicted sex offender could live in a
neighborhood without the knowledge of neighbors, and speculation that the
Poirier case may have been related to a similar case in Waseca earlier this
year, even though he hadn't been charged in the Moose Lake case.
Blom's criminal history was cited by Associated Press Editor Doug Glass as one
reason to run the identity. His organization, however, has a policy against
"We knew the guy's criminal record early on," Glass says. "When a person has
that kind of reputation, how do you smear a person like that? That was one
reason we might've used the name. But we look back at our policy and there is
the chance they have the wrong person on the hook for this crime"
The Minnesota News Council's Gilson admits the push to name a suspect in a sex
crime is not trivial. "People want to know so they can protect themselves," he
says. "The news media feel an obligation to let them know about those kinds of
cases. There have been too many cases of ex-offenders, where the charge was a
sex offense, who have come out of prison supposedly on the right track, and
within 24-48 hours committed another offense; including murder. Maybe the
conflicting values between society's desire and need to know about these
characters, and the guy's so-called "right to privacy" can't be resolved. But I
think in sex cases, I can understand the alarm in the public. It's obviously
not something that's in the Constitution, and not something that it's in any
written code of ethics in the news media."
Gilson points to inaccurate reporting following the arrest of a security guard
in the Olympics bombing in Atlanta as the best reason for withholding names.
Many of the news organizations which have policies against identifying
suspects, nonetheless named Richard Jewell as a suspect and were sued by
Jewell when he was cleared.
That's good enough reason to have a policy, according to Bill Buzenberg, senior
vice president of news at Minnesota Public Radio. "It is a policy which would
have been useful for networks to observe in the Olympic bombing case in Atlanta
in which the name of security guard Richard Jewell was used on the air, even
though Jewell was never charged with that crime - a setback for press
credibility in my view," Buzenberg said.