Journalism can damage the innocent


The Olympic games of 1996 that were held in Atlanta were bombed. One person was killed and more than 100 others were injured. News media outlets swarmed the scene, reporting false information that permanently damaged an innocent man’s life.

Richard Jewell was an innocent security guard who was accused by many media outlets as being the “Olympic bomber.” His name and identity were portrayed in the worst possible light.

A journalist by the name of Kevin Sack now reflects on his experience reporting the Richard Jewell case.

Sack was the national correspondent in the Atlanta bureau of The New York Times. On July 30, 1996, Sack was writing an “extra” edition for The Atlanta Journal trying to confirm that Jewell was the focus of the FBI’s search for the bomber.

As Sack approached the deadline for the article, he was informed  by the paper’s executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, that he was not to accuse Jewell for “fitting the profile of the bomber,” instead he was to write a modest article. Sack felt it was very hard not to compete against the other papers who were reporting the story on Jewell an with this he wrote a paragraph that might be considered one of Sack’s mistakes.

Sack ended up writing, “Coverage of the investigation of the bombing at the Olympics here was dominated for hours today by a report in The Atlanta Journal naming a local security guard as the leading suspect.”

He also wrote, “ Federal law enforcement sources had confirmed to The Times that Mr. Jewell was among the suspects in the bombing, but cautioned that there were others, and that there was not sufficient evidence to charge him.”

Looking back, Sack regrets writing this.

The article actually stood out for its restraint.

Today, Sack seems to have learned little from his mistakes and understands that the journalism business, through the Internet and social media, has made it more tempting to use unconfirmed information and rush to judgment.

The New York Post’s “Bag Men” cover story reporting the two innocent Boston Marathon spectators is one of the many examples of how the defaming of innocent people through journalism and social media has continued.

For an innocent man’s reputation to be destroyed by the media and for the media to not learn and change from this is mind-boggling. Jewell felt like the media jumped on him “like piranha on a bleeding cow.” He also stated in interviews that he could never get his name back.

It is a tough situation for journalists to be in when they have to do their jobs and inform the public, but also have to keep in mind that the reputation of a possibly innocent suspect is on the line.

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