‘Person of interest’ presents dilemma for journalists

Daniel Heinrich, the Annandale, Minn., man who was ordered detained today on charges of possessing child pornography, has not been charged with any crime relating to the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling.

At last week’s news conference in which prosecutors and investigators made it clear they have no evidence to charge him with Jacob’s abduction, they identified him with a phrase that is — or at least should — present ethical questions for journalists: person of interest.

“Given the nature of these charges, and as a result of similarities between the abduction of Jacob Wetterling and a number of unsolved sexual assaults in central Minnesota dating back to the 1980s and the alleged criminal actions by Danny Heinrich, we consider him to be a person of interest in the Wetterling abduction,” Richard Thornton, the FBI Special Agent in Charge, said in last week’s news conference.

“I would like to urge the members of the media and public to reserve judgment,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger added. “All defendants, including Mr. Heinrich, are innocent unless and until proven guilty.”

There’s a fair amount of theater in Luger’s admonition.

In almost every headline in local media today, for example, Henrich isn’t identified as a man charged with child porn, he’s identified as a person of interest in the Wetterling disappearance.

That connection was made by prosecutors using the term. It wasn’t an accident; by implicating a specific individual and publicizing his name, they hope someone will step forward with the evidence they don’t have.

News organizations have been generally compliant with the effort. But, often burned in the past, they have lately shied away from linking people to crimes for which they’ve not been charged and for which no evidence has been uncovered.

But, increasingly, they and the authorities get around this ethic by using a term which has no value or meaning in the justice system. It merely allows the media to do what they insist they don’t do — connect a person to a crime when there’s little more than suspicion. This is the “I’m not saying, I’m just saying” school of journalism.

“It’s a really bad term to use, because the public reads ‘suspect,’ ” Kelly McBride, at the national journalism think tank Poynter Institute told CNN many years ago, before the phrase became almost as ubiquitous in crime stories as another word or phrase without official judicial meaning: alleged.

This isn’t an area where journalists are quick learners as the incorrect identification of a Cold Spring man in the death of police officer Tom Decker showed. In that case, at least, the man was identified as a “suspect,” but was never charged because a county prosecutor refused to bend to the pressure to do so. She was right. He didn’t do it. Then he sued several Twin Cities news organizations who weren’t quite so picky.

Journalists aren’t the only ones setting their own rules aside. The FBI’s rules “discourage” using the term. “Federal prosecutors should strive to avoid unnecessary public references to wrongdoing by uncharged third-parties,” its rules say. But it makes an exception when a U.S. attorney allows it. A U.S. attorney took part in last week’s news conference.

According to USLegal.com, “the use of the term increased in popularity in 1996, after investigators and reporters named Atlanta security guard Richard Jewell as potentially responsible for the Olympic Park bombing. He was later cleared and won at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements due to his claim that his reputation was forever ruined.”

Ironically, it’s that case which prompted many news organizations here to avoid naming a suspect before a person is charged.

At the same time, however, it’s clear from last week’s news conference that the authorities think Heinrich is involved in young Wetterling’s disappearance by virtue of the fact that the search warrant against him specifically indicated they were looking for items related to Wetterling. He’d also been interviewed twice by investigators after Jacob’s disappearance. It’s foolish to expect the media to ignore those facts.

But journalists — and particularly the public — need not ignore another fact in the case: At least as far as the Wetterling case is concerned, they didn’t find what they were looking for.