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The responsibility of reporters

Reports should worry about doing the right thing— not what we have the right to do

As you‘ve heard, the judge declared a mistrial in the case citing the intense outside pressure placed on one of the jurors.  That juror would be juror No. 4, the 79-year-old woman who flashed the OK sign to the defense several days ago.  Now, flashing that OK sign was a dumb idea on her part and it might well have been an issue if there were an appeal in the case. 

But we‘ll never know that, because an even dumber idea was publicizing that woman‘s name in the paper.  “The Wall Street Journal” did it, then “The New York Post” plastered it on the front page under the headline “Ms.  Trial.”  The result was not only huge publicity.  Justice could probably proceed, as it has so many times amidst the watchful eye of the press ,but while justice may be blind, jurors can be fearful, and juror No. 4 started getting threatening letters at her home. 

She was viciously excoriated in Internet chat rooms, and none of that would have happened if the press had kept her name out of the papers.  Though the press violated no laws in doing so, they violated some ethics. 

Now jurors who‘ve talked say they were close to a verdict. Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz left court with a little bit of a smile today.  No doubt pretty hopeful of their chances of a not guilty verdict the next time around.

The press was within its right to report that woman‘s name.  That doesn‘t mean it should have.  I‘ve been a reporter for a pretty long time and I‘ve always thought of us reporters as needing to remember the words of former Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart. He once said “journalists spend too much time worrying about what they have the right to do, and not enough time about what is the right thing to do.” 

As reporters, we‘re supposed to be there to report the proceedings of the court, not throw them into disarray.  Certain members of the media embarrass us all by not doing the right thing. 

'Deborah Norville Tonight' airs weeknights, 9 p.m. ET on MSNC.