Identifying suspect is tricky but justifiable

His face, name and history have been everywhere in the last week. Security guard Richard Jewell, 33, was hailed as a hero after spotting a suspicious backpack that ultimately exploded early July 27 in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. Although the area was evacuated, shrapnel from the blast killed one and injured more than a hundred others. Jewell’s keen eye was considered largely responsible for averting a massive crisis in the midst of the Olympic Games. Within days, however, Jewell was under the spotlight of scrutiny as the FBI’s reported prime suspect.
Intense investigations of Jewell’s home, possessions and past followed, but FBI officials have yet to charge him with the bombing. Still, journalists continue to hound Jewell, and in many circles — public and private — the hero-turned-goat already has been tried, convicted and strung up. Meanwhile, the flurry of activity surrounding Jewell has raised questions about the media’s role in criminal investigations. At what point, for example, should news outlets report the name of a suspect? And was the leak of Jewell’s name more of a calculated decision by the FBI to dupe journalists into doing what it legally could not — keep a suspect at bay without charging him with a crime?
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which first reported the story, and other media sources have taken a considerable amount of heat for their handling of the Jewell story. FBI Director Louis Freeh said there are several suspects in the bombing, and that arrests are not imminent. Nevertheless, Jewell’s is the only name to have been attached to the investigation. If the FBI is unable to pin the crime on its prime suspect — little evidence has surfaced that implies otherwise — who’s to blame for the process that will no doubt tear Jewell’s life apart?
If the FBI did indeed leak the information on Jewell, the press in this instance, took the FBI’s bait hook, line and sinker. Granted, such a theory is pure conjecture, but providing the media with a name and a face achieves some important goals for the FBI. First, having a suspect helps to alleviate public concerns about further violent incidents. Second, it allows the media to serve as a watchdog, putting enormous pressure on the suspect in question — guilty or not.
With that in mind, should journalists have played along? We would answer that question with a “yes,” but not in the interests of assisting law enforcement in its investigation. Informing the public that an individual is under consideration as a suspect is a tricky but justifiable choice. Critics of the decision to report Jewell’s alleged involvement say this stance flies in the face of “innocent until proven guilty” — a reasonable doubt still exists as to whether Jewell was the evildoer or the good Samaritan. Many of the facts are out in the open, where they belong, but any conclusions at this point are simple guesswork.
Regardless, if and when this case is solved, Jewell’s name will be inextricably tied to the bombing and the Atlanta Olympics as a whole. If Jewell is found innocent, he will stand as an unwilling casualty in the battle for the truth, and both the FBI and journalists will have to answer some questions of their own. But a journalist’s responsibility is to report the news as it happens. In this case, perhaps unfortunately, Jewell just happened.