What to Guard Against as a Journalist

Just after 1:00 a.m. on July 28th, 1996 a loud boom went off in Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanda, Georgia, but it was not the sound of celebration for the Olympics. An inconspicuous pipe bomb exploded in the park, and according to a New York Times article one was killed and 111were injured in the explosion. One other died from a heart attack while racing to the site to catch the incident on camera for television. One man named Richard Jewell was originally hailed as a hero for for being a first responder. However, the security guard was later pegged as the suspect (see the story here) and targeted in newspapers and on television, and it wouldn’t be for a few months until his image was cleared.

Another interesting news story that surrounds a person in question is that of Stella Lieback and her case against McDonald’s. In 1992 Lieback was sitting in the passenger seat of a car when she spilled a scorching cup of McDonald’s coffee onto her lap. She went into shock from the severe pain, and her grandson rushed her to the hospital where her care came with bills. Later, the 79 year-old sued McDonald’s in hopes that the business would lower the temperature of its served coffee. From the court case she was originally awarded 2.9 million dollars, and the judge requested that McDonald’s lower the standard temperature of coffee to 170-180 degress Fahrenheit. The world immediately responded critically to Lieback. She was illustrated as a person greedy for money, when  in reality she only recieved around 500,000 dollars. As well as, critics felt she had no right to sue McDonald’s for a clumsy mistake.

Many lessons can be learned from the coverage of these two incidents. First, facts should be checked over. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that journalists should “test the accuracy of information from all sources.” In the Olympic Bombing story the number of people dead and the number injured continually changed. In Lieback’s case, it was claimed that she “won the lottery” by getting 2.9 million dollars when she was only awarded less than 500,000 dollars. Also, the news said she was holding the coffee between her legs while driving which made her seem more at fault. Therefore, her image was distorted.  Secondly, sources should be clearly stated. The Code of Ethics instructs to “identify sources whenever feasible.” Based upon the New York Times article, sources were not identified in Jewell’s case, and journalists used “unidentified law enforcement sources to cast Mr. Jewell in the worst possible light.” This leads into the third lesson of not taking one side of an argument and harming the person or people the article revolves around. Journalists should “be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of  charges.” Before Jewell was convicted the public believed he was guilty because of the press. Headlines in the newspapwer stated him as a suspect before any hard evidence supporting this statement got out. News represented him as “Bubba the Bomber.” Jewell was being wrongfully harmed when in fact he was not the bomber. Lieback was stuck in similar circumstances. As word counts got smaller in articles covering the case, Lieback’s situation and how the jury came to its conclusions were not explained in full detail. Lieback’s character was harmed when comics, cartoons and comedians alike portrayed her as a “Scheming wannabe millionaire.” Based on the news coverage of these two stories, journalists learn to check over facts, to identify sources, and to treat people fairly.

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