NEWS- Naming names: <I>Progress</I> outing sparks media debate

A 16-year-old stares forlornly out of the sheriff's cruiser, waiting to go back to jail. One of four teens convicted of plotting to blow up two Albemarle high schools, he had not been publicly identified– until the Daily Progress put his face on its front page last week.

After the announcement of their arrests in January and February, classmates, teachers, and the media pretty quickly knew the boys' identity, but no media outlets released their names until April 5, when the Progress ID'd the two older boys and ran photos of the 15-year-old Albemarle High School student in its lead story.

The doleful stare of the 16-year-old Western Albemarle High School student, who pleaded guilty to two counts of plotting to blow up his school and Albemarle High, appeared the following day.

Two of the boys are 13-year-old Jack Jouett Middle School students, and their trial was closed because state law protects their privacy. They were tried with the 15-year-old, and all three were convicted March 28– although the judge's verdict was not initially made public.

Among local media, only WINA followed the Progress onto the naming names bandwagon, and even within WINA, opinion on that decision is mixed.

Program director Jay James says there wasn't much discussion in the WINA newsroom about whether to release the names. Since a February 3 police news conference, he says, the station released whatever information it could obtain, because of the severity of the charges and the public safety issues.

James notes that Progress reporter Liesel Nowak had appeared on WINA to talk about her coverage of the case. And, he adds, "These kids wanted to blow up two schools." Nowak declined comment for this story.

The naming contrasts with the handling of the notorious 2002 spate of attacks by Charlottesville High students. They were subsequently convicted of brutally beating UVA students in what were widely described as "hate crimes" because most of the perps where black and most of the victims white. Except for an 18-year-old, none of the CHS students were named in the Progress or other local media.

"I would have to say, yes, there's a difference," says James. "Beating up UVA students is serious, but it doesn't compare to murder or plotting to blow up a schoolhouse."

However, the WINA website does not include the names of the 15-and 16-year-olds. "We cited the Daily Progress on the air," says James. But because of corporate concerns, he notes, "on the website we wouldn't do that."

Coy Barefoot, host of WINA's new afternoon talk-show, Charlottesville Right Now, has not named the teens on his show.

"I don't think it's necessary to use the names of these children– and they are children," says Barefoot.

None of the local television stations have identified the boys.

"From our standpoint," says Jeremy Settle, news director for Gray Television's WCAV, WVAW, and WAHU, "if they're juveniles and being charged as juveniles, we don't identify them. If they're charged as adults, we'd identify them."

That policy was unaffected by the Progress move. "That didn't change our stance," says Settle. "There's nothing to prove by doing this."

Even when his cameraperson caught the 16-year-old's perp walk into the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court April 5, "We opted to blur it," Settle says. "We'd rather be second or third on a story than be over the top."

With a lot of local reporters right out of college, Settle wonders how well this sort of issue is addressed– even in journalism schools. "It's been a great learning experience for our staff," he says. "They'll be running into situations like this throughout their careers."

NBC29 did not divulge the boys' names because they were not charged as adults, says station news director Neal Bennett. "We make it a policy not to use the names of juvenile suspects unless their crimes rise to a certain level," he says.

When the Daily Progress identified the two older teens, says Bennett, "We talked about it. It's definitely a decision we wouldn't have made, but I don't want to speak to what other news organizations have done."

The Richmond Time-Dispatch– like the Progress, a Media General-owned paper– cited the Charlottesville paper's story when it named the two older teens April 6, adding, "The Times-Dispatch had not identified the juveniles because of their age and because police had not identified them."

The Hook does not print the names of detained juveniles who are not charged as adults.

Early on, the father of the 15-year-old feared that his son's name might be published if he were considered a public figure as a result of litigation he was involved in a few years ago. Several media outlets, including the Hook, held file photos of him– but kept them under wraps. So did the Progress– for a while.

"The Daily Progress is identifying the students now that they have been convicted," was the extent of the Progress' explanation, a single sentence in the April 5 story that carried an above-the-fold color file photo of the 15-year-old. Daily Progress managing editor McGregor McCance declined to comment on his paper's decision.

The father says he's disappointed by the outing, but he did get a chance to throw in some family photos to show a positive side of his son's life.

"I do appreciate that instead of showing him in a squad car with 'convicted' under it, they were able to talk about him" in a more positive light, he says.

The mother of the 16-year-old pictured in the squad car consistently has declined to comment to the media since her son's arrest and guilty plea.

Even ethics experts don't agree about the publication of the Albemarle teens' names.

"It certainly is a gray area," says Wendell Cochran, who teaches journalism ethics at American University. "Most news organizations are fairly skittish about printing the names of juveniles unless they're being charged as adults."

Cochran believes the bomb plot's newsworthiness is an important factor in deciding whether to name names. "If police had found a can of gasoline at the school," Cochran says, "I probably would have published the names right away."

However, the evidence– particularly the alleged digital communications– that earned the conspiracy convictions remains a mystery. Since the February 3 news conference, police and the prosecutors have been tight-lipped, confirming only that three computers were confiscated and two guns were taken during searches. As previously reported by the Hook, both guns came from one parent's locked gun safe.

The dearth of information continues to perplex some citizens, who, on local blogs and radio, wonder if authorities overreacted.

The Supreme Court has said newspapers have the right to print the names of rape victims or juveniles as long as they don't steal the information or break in to get it, says Cochran, citing a West Virginia case in which a juvenile rape victim's name was published. Ethicists, however, are split.

"I probably would come down on the side of publishing the names of the older ones, even if they weren't charged as adults, because of the nature of the charges," says Cochran. "Suppose in two years, someone blows up a school, and it's one of those kids. I'd be wondering about ways to identify the younger [13-year-old] ones."

Jeff Seglin, however, who writes an ethics column for the New York Times syndicate and teaches professional ethics at Emerson College, doesn't buy the "public figure" debate as legitimate for outing the 15-year-old. And he questions whether anything is gained by publishing the two names, other than removing suspicion from someone else.

"Heinous crimes" might be a reason to publish, but this case doesn't sound like that, says Seglin. "Why not tell the story and protect the kids and their families?"

Seglin observes that the juvenile system exists because "Kids don't think as maturely as adults and don't realize the implications of their actions." And if the case is appealed and overturned, then "You're left with the kids named."