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Naming of Moose Lake Suspect Divides Twin Cities Media
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 accused.

What They're Saying
Ted Canova, WCCO TV News Director
Gary Gilson, Minnesota News Council
Doug Glass, Minneapolis Bureau Chief, Associated Press
Scott Libin, News Director and Mark Ginther, Asst. News Director - KSTP TV

Interviewed by Bob Collins

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 him."

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 made."

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 decision."

Ted Canova, WCCO TV News Director

Photo courtesy WCCO
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.

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, however.

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 it.

"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.