Cameron Steele, the newspaper’s public safety reporter, obtained the video from a tipster requesting anonymity, something the newspaper granted.
The tipster suggested and the sheriff confirmed that the handcuffed male was a minor. Under the headline, “Video shows sheriff using manual force, but sheriff says it’s not the whole story,” The Star published an article Thursday regarding the video. On its website, the newspaper posted the video while The Star’s Page 1 included still images captured from the video.
Because the male in the video was a minor who might be involved in the juvenile justice system, the newspaper considered various outcomes of publication.
U.S. juvenile justice has its roots in the Progressive Era, the period from the late 19th century to early 20th century. Adopting the British legal concept of “parens patriae,” meaning the state as parent, the first U.S. juvenile court was created in Chicago in 1899. It favored rehabilitation for children who ran afoul of the law instead of the punishment model for adult criminals.
One of its hallmarks is the protection of the identities of children in the system. Late 1800s reformers saw value in establishing a legal mechanism where a child might be persuaded to turn from his ways and reach adulthood as a law-abiding citizen.
Alabama legal code, like the laws in most states, calls for the proceedings of juvenile justice to be kept from the public. The last thing an adult put on the straight and narrow needs is the long tail of a criminal record dating to a time when he was young and foolish.
Owing to the nature of juvenile non-disclosure laws, we cannot confirm if the young man in the video is in the juvenile justice system, though given the circumstance, we had a reasonable belief he might be.
On the matter of law, our legal counsel assured us, “Publishing truthful information about a minor is not a problem for a newspaper.”
Then there’s the ethical question. Under the section labeled “Minimize Harm,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics urges journalists to be “cautious” about identifying juveniles.
On Thursday, I e-mailed several journalism ethics educators to seek their take on these questions. Dr. Robert M. Steele, a distinguished professor of journalism ethics at DePauw University, responded. (He is not related to Star reporter Cameron Steele.)
Dr. Steele said there are legitimate reasons to identify a juvenile. However, he added, “Such an exception still requires an attempt to minimize the impact on a juvenile.” He wondered, did the newspaper “take steps to conceal [the minor’s] identity?”
The short answer is yes. No less than a dozen newsroom staffers reviewed the video as we prepared to publish Thursday’s newspaper. The video, taken from a security camera at a distance from Amerson and the minor, is low quality, making it difficult to recognize distinctive features of either person. It also does not have audio, meaning there are no voices to be recognized. However, in order to provide another level of anonymity, The Star digitally altered the video to further obscure the minor’s face.
Dr. Steele, while withholding judgment on the story, raised other questions, including:
• “Is there any possibility that the tipster had ulterior motives in giving you the tape, motives that might skew the truth of the situation?”
That’s always a possibility when a source requests anonymity. However, in our judgment, the video in question stood alone as a moment in time, regardless of its source.
• “Could you have held back on publishing the story and showing the video while you gathered more information?”
A truism in journalism is that reporters could always gather more information. However, editors and reporters believed we had enough information to publish a fair article on the matter. On Friday, the newspaper followed up with an article — “Sheriff Amerson’s actions on tape out of character, colleagues say” — that, as the headline implies, included several sources who spoke on behalf of the sheriff.
• “The story makes strong accusations against the sheriff. In publishing the story, how did you decide the frame and content of the story to bring as high a level of fairness as possible to someone accused of wrongdoing?”
Thursday’s article included a source — Cumberland School of Law professor LaJuana Davis — who suggested Amerson was in the wrong, based on what she saw on the video.
However, her views were balanced by Amerson’s comment that, “I would not hurt a child,” and those by Tallapoosa County District Attorney Paul Jones, who advised against rushing to judgment against law enforcers who use physical force on someone who is restrained.
The paper’s guiding principle is neatly summarized by another section of the SPJ’s ethics code. It urges journalists to “[r]ecognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”
This obligation compelled The Star to publish an account of a county official captured on video doing part of the job he was elected to do.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.