(HOST) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at a recent news story in which a newspaper itself became part of the story.
(GILBERT) The news media themselves have been in the news lately. The WCAX-TV “outtakes” case received a lot of attention and raised important constitutional issues. But I’ve been particu- larly intrigued by a situation involving the Burlington Free Press.
Here’s what happened. The Free Press was reviewing local court records one day. A reporter spotted an assault case involving a young Bosnian man, an immigrant whom the paper had written about before. The prior story was about how the teenager had run into a burning building, literally, to save an elderly man trapped inside. The story made the Bosnian a hero.
Green Mountain College in Poultney took note of the young man’s courage, and of his personal situation — he’s a refugee from war- torn Bosnia whose family had settled in Burlington. The college decided to honor the young man with a four-year, all-expenses- paid “Make a Difference” citizenship scholarship. He was to enroll this fall.
But the young man’s star fell as fast as it had risen. After the Free Press saw the young man’s name in the court records, it called the college for comment. The question: Was the college going to give a criminal a citizenship scholarship?
The contact from the newspaper was the first that the college knew of the young man’s crime. Almost immediately, the college withdrew the scholarship — prompting public criticism of the Free Press as well as of the college.
Clearly, the young man has not had an easy life. The chance to go to college was a big break. Did the Free Press have any respons- ibility to protect the young man and the scholarship he had won? The simple answer is, No. A court record is a public document. But somehow this doesn’t feel right, and here’s why, I think.
Reporters are free to call anyone they want for comment on stories. But the college didn’t have to give a yes or no answer to the question, Does he still get the scholarship? In fact, I think the college should not have disclosed information about the student’s enrollment status. It could have said, thanks for the news; we’ll follow our procedures in evaluating the case. But the college must have felt it was on the spot. It was an uncomfortable position. Nonetheless, the college had a responsibility to investigate the circumstances of the young man’s situation a bit more fully — perhaps a hearing where he told his side of the story.
And the Free Press. Was it responsible for any fallout from the story? Well, curiously, the paper’s code of ethics, as posted on its Web site, states the following in the section, “Acting with Integ- rity”: “We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions.” The statement concludes, “We will always try to do the right thing.”
I’m not sure that the right thing was done in this case, and that’s what’s led to the public criticism. We are a nation that believes, deeply, in second chances. This young man has been denied that.
This is Allen Gilbert.
Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.