CU prof ethical in dealings with law

JonBenet Ramsey case maven was right to help police apprehend suspect Karr

Sept. 9, 2006

by David Kopel

Is Michael Tracey unethical? According to the Associated Press, he may be, but I think that the complaints against Tracey are nonsense, and reflect much of what is wrong with the media these days.

Tracey, you will recall, is a communications professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. For a couple of years, he was my counterpart in this On the Media column.

Tracey's global claim to fame, however, is his investigation of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. Over a four-year period, an anonymous e-mailer, later revealed to be John Mark Karr, began corresponding with Tracey. Eventually, Karr confessed, in gruesome detail, to killing JonBenet, and also stated that he was currently molesting a young girl in Thailand. Tracey shared the correspondence with law enforcement, and the information led to Karr's arrest.

On Sept. 1, the Boulder Daily Cameraran an Associated Press story that questioned whether Tracey had violated journalistic ethics. According to the expert academics quoted in the article, if Tracey is a journalist, then he may have acted unethically. The AP summarized: "As a journalist, the educators said, Tracey could be expected to avoid close collaboration with investigators to maintain his independence, except in exceptional circumstances."

Boulder District Attorney Mary Lacy called Tracey "a journalist," and so did Rocky Mountain Newseditor and publisher John Temple, in his blog. Tracey, however, is a full-time university professor, with no column for the News.He describes himself as an academic, not a journalist, although he does sometimes make documentary films. But let's suppose that Tracey were instead a full-time employee of theNews,with no academic affiliation.

If so, he apparently would have run afoul of the standard expressed by Bob Nelson of the Poynter Institute (a media watchdog group in St. Petersburg, Fla.):

"We scrutinize the police and the prosecution and the methods of the investigation. If we are collaborating, then our ability - real or perceived - to be a watchdog is compromised."

Significantly, the ethics charge does not involve whether Tracey made a promise of confidentiality to Karr. Rather, the claim is that journalists sacrifice their independence when they cooperate with the authorities.

Yet the notion that journalists are independent of the police is inaccurate. Reporters tend to be heavily dependent on the police for information about crime stories. That dependence may be one reason why the Denver newspapers were so timid in investigating the incredibly slow and timid police response during the Columbine murders.

Second, newspapers constantly emphasize the importance of connecting to, being part of and serving their local communities. If you're so "independent" that you won't reveal even nonconfidential information which could help capture someone who sexually assaulted and murdered a child in the community, then you are too "independent" to be part of the community.

Suppose that a Denver reporter had discovered the Mexican hideout of accused cop-killer Raul Gomez-Garcia. The reporter could maintain his independence by writing a front-page story disclosing Gomez-Garcia's location; tipped off by the story, the fugitive would likely be long gone by the time the police arrived. Alternatively, the reporter could do what Tracey did - help the police apprehend the suspected killer.

The latter course of action is what an ethical human being would do, and journalists should act like ethical humans. As long as the journalist properly discloses how he had cooperated with the police, his actions would be commendable rather than unethical.

Some critics claim that if journalists cooperate with the police, they will lose the trust of their audience. But just imagine how much less most readers would trust the newspapers if readers learned that a reporter refused to reveal nonconfidential information which could have led to the capture of a notorious murderer.

Since 2003, the Newsand The Denver Post have run many dozens of articles about the claim that the White House "outed" CIA agent Valerie Plame. But as recently revealed in Newsweek,the man who first disclosed Plame's identity (accidentally, through gossip, not malice) was Richard Armitage, a State Department official critical of the Iraq war.

Commendably, The Washington Post(Sept. 1) published a scathing editorial acknowledging that the accusations against the White House were false, and that Plame's husband (Joseph Wilson) had lied when he claimed in 2003 to have proven that Saddam Hussein was not attempting to obtain uranium from Niger.

Also commendably, the Newsran one New York Timesarticle, plus a pair of national columns informing readers that Plamegate was not, after all, a case of the White House "outing" a CIA agent.

The Denver Post,unfortunately, covered the revelation with a mere three paragraphs in its national briefing. Although thePosteditorially, and its columnists, had considered the story worthy of attention approximately two dozen times, the news that the White House was not the culprit was barely acknowledged.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books. He can be reached at .

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