The Right Decision?

When two of Boston’s most infamous rival gangs called a truce in November, the Boston Police Department requested that no premature mention of the information be made in any local newspapers, in fear of impeding on the process. While both the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe’s police reporters were aware of the truce for weeks, only the Globe decided to go public with the news.

Days later, on the front page of the Boston Globe, the newspaper announced the truce under the headline: 2 Gangs Find Peace in Secret: Officials Summit Halts Bloodshed. In a colorful, intricately detailed and lengthy article, Globe reporter Suzanne Smalley divulged insider accounts of the truce. Less than a month later, when a senior gang member who had been involved in the peace-making process was shot dead on a Boston street, many openly questioned the newspaper’s decision to break the story.

Did the Boston Globe make the right decision? Question remains, but the newspaper insists that it did not take its decision to go public with the news lightly. The Phoenix, a Boston alternative newsweekly, discussed the dilemma.

According to Foon Rhee — the Globe’s city editor, and the editor in charge of the November 5 story — the answer is an unequivocal yes. “We don’t make a decision to run stories like this lightly,” Rhee tells the Phoenix. “I was having conversations with more senior editors as late as the Saturday before the story ran” — i.e., November 4. Ultimately, Rhee says, the story was published for two reasons. First, Globe sources who’d been involved in hammering out the truce were comfortable with it being printed. Second, the paper expected the truce to be made public at some point in the relatively near future. Rhee also notes that Smalley’s story omitted the names of Norfleet and other gang principals, and that the truce — while news to the general public — was already common knowledge on the street. “Everyone who was directly involved with it knew it was going on,” Rhee concludes. “The only people who didn’t know it was going on were our readers.”

The Boston Police Department insisted that the article was irresponsible journalism and argued that the disclosure might be “detrimental to the mission.”

It was a feel-good piece — with one notable exception: Elaine Driscoll, the BPD’s spokeswoman, stated that then-acting commissioner Al Goslin wouldn’t comment because of the possible consequences of publicity. “Commissioner Goslin believes that it is premature to engage in public discussion about this ambitious initiative,” Driscoll said at the time. “Disclosing details is potentially detrimental to the mission, which is decreasing gun violence on the streets of Boston.”

This case is a prime example of the ethical press decisions we have been analyzing this semester. The Phoenix article quotes media ethics specialist and director of the Northeastern journalism school, Steve Burgard, who agreed with the Globe’s decision.

“It’s not unusual at all for law-enforcement or military officials to ask editors to withhold publication of information they’re concerned about,” Burgard observes. “But in this case, it seems to me [the BPD] would have had to demonstrate that publication would, in fact, cause real harm to individuals — because the newsworthiness of this truce and the almost historic setting in which these groups got together is so obviously an important city-news story.”

Crime on city streets is a paramount issue for most city dwellers. I feel that this article was relevant and necessary news for the Boston community. I do find it ironic that the Herald, an often-sensational tabloid, chose to hold the story. I may be cynical, but I doubt it was for ethical reasons. While I understand the concerns of the police department, I do not feel they are adequate justification or define sufficient concern for withholding this news. Nonetheless, the case serves as an interesting analysis of press ethics.

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