"Is Anyone Still Crying?"
How the Berkeley journalists got their stories without
breaking the rules.
By David Gilson
The November 1998 murder of Lisa Norrell brought a wave of media attention
to the communities of northern Contra Costa county. In the days following
the discovery of Norrell's body, local newspaper reporters and television
crews swarmed over Pittsburg and Antioch, scrambling to collect information
from anyone connected to the case.
For Lisa's family and friends and other key players, the media's relentless
presence and aggressive reporting tactics exacerbated their grief and
pain. Months later, many in the quiet working-class area remain wary
of the media and its coverage of the tragedy.
While updating the Norrell case one year later, the graduate class
of UC Berkeley journalists who created this website learned of several
instances where journalists had distressed the community and may have
unfairly damaged individuals' reputations. Some examples included:
--Karla Heneby, the ex-wife of suspect David M. Heneby, said that a
television crew went to her children's school to tape them without her
permission. Police had arrested David Heneby as a suspect in the Norrell
killing in January, but did not file charges against him. She said she
left town for three weeks with her children to avoid the unwanted attention.
--Christine M. Rohde, a teacher at Pittsburg High School, where
Lisa Norrell was a student, said the media acted like "paparazzi"
who would do anything to get a story. She recounted an incident
in which journalists came to the school looking for interviews
by asking, "Is anyone still crying?"
--Although suspect Garry L. Walton was released by police and
never charged with Norrell's murder, his life was deeply affected
by his association with the case. His photograph appeared on the
front pages of local newspapers and in local newscasts. Though
he was no longer considered a suspect at the time, Walton told
the Contra Costa Times in May that he was still trying to escape
the notoriety caused by his brief association with the murder.
As the Berkeley journalists explored Pittsburg and Antioch last
month, they wanted to avoid making similar mistakes and ethical
transgressions. But they still wanted to do what was necessary
to collect information for their stories in order to provide the
public with information about the case, the investigation, and
its effects on the Pittsburg-Antioch community.
Several of the Berkeley journalists faced ethical questions in
the course of their work. At what point does the public's right
to know about an important story that may affect its safety collide
with individual privacy rights? How much of a role should ethical
considerations play in reporting stories such as the Norrell murder
and its aftermath? Their answers to these and other questions
affected how they reported and wrote their stories. Often, these
answers were not clear-cut.
How Far Is Too Far?
Marcie T. Aroy and Beverly J. Oden, for instance, interviewed
Lisa Norrell's friends and family, including her mother, Minnie
Norrell (See NORRELL). Aroy and Oden
were careful to weigh the demands of reporting against the need
to respect the community they were reporting on.
KNOW THE CODE:
A guide to ethics resources for journalists
Most media outlets and professional organizations have codes
of ethics that their employees or members are expected to follow.
A number of these codes can be found online.
--The Society of Professional Journalists,
the nation's largest journalism association, has a Code
of Ethics that encourages journalists to be honest, independent,
and accountable. The SPJ also runs an ethics
listserv and an ethics hotline (765-653-2070, Ext. 208).
--The American Society of Newspaper Editors has its
code of ethics online, as well as a number of codes of ethics
around the nation, including the San
Francisco Chronicle and the Washington
--The Contra Costa Times
currently does not have a code of ethics. According to its news
department, it is working on one, but it will not be available
to the public.
--The Reporters Committee for Freedom
of the Press, a non-profit organization that provides free
legal help to reporters, has a First
Amendment Handbook for reporters that includes a section on
--Ethical guidelines have evolved with the times, as illustrated
by changes made to the
Code of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
--Links to ethics codes from media in over 30 European countries
can be found at Ethicnet.
When they visited Pittsburg High, they asked permission from teachers
and parents before speaking with minors. Aroy said it helped to explain
to subjects that she did not have an agenda, just a desire to listen.
"I feel strongly about trying not to intrude on these people's
lives and allowing them their space to heal, yet I feel like the story
is a compelling one to tell," said Aroy.
Rosen is a professor at New York University's School of Journalism
and an advocate of "public journalism," which encourages journalists
to make stronger connections to the communities they cover. Rosen said
that journalists should anticipate the consequences of their actions,
especially when they might cause a subject grief.
In its code of ethics, the Society of
Professional Journalists, the nation's largest organization of journalists,
advises its members, "Show compassion for those who may be affected
adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with
children and inexperienced sources or subjects." Many media organizations
have codes of ethics (See RESOURCES), which
Sometimes it is unclear if a journalist's actions will cause harm or
distress to subjects. When Berkeley journalist Cassandra A. Herrman
first telephoned Karla Heneby, Heneby declined to be interviewed (See
SUBJECTS). Herrman thought she might have
better luck if she approached Heneby at home. She was not sure if an
unannounced visit would upset Heneby or if it would persuade her to
talk. In person, Heneby set a date for an interview.
associate dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, said
that face-to-face contact can be a good way of opening up sources. "Youre
giving the subject more information to make a decision [whether to speak
with you]," he said. However, he added that persistent contact
with a reluctant source can become invasive.
After Heneby failed to show up for the interview, Herrman called her
without success. She decided that to pursue Heneby further would be
inappropriate. "You push it further if the story warrants aggressiveness
this story wasn't going to save someone's life," she said.
Herrman also considered whether to publish information about David Heneby's
family and his criminal record even though he has not been formally
charged with the Norrell murder. She felt the information could unfairly
embarrass him or his family, since he was never charged with the murder.
Journalists have reexamined their treatment of uncharged suspects as
a result of the Richard
Jewell episode, in which an innocent man was falsely suspected of
the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. Jewell has since filed libel lawsuits
against CNN, NBC and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Herrman's editors and colleagues thought the details of Heneby's criminal
history might add to the public's awareness of the investigation into
the killing. She concluded that she could print some of the information
about Heneby without suggesting his guilt or innocence.
A Balancing Act
Fairness was also an important consideration for Haley W. Nolde and
Chris A. Smith, who reported on the allegations of child molestation
against former Antioch fire captain Duanne D. Shoemake (See INFORMANT).
The reporters felt they had to balance their interest in exploring Shoemake's
involvement in the Norrell case with their obligation to be fair to
Shoemake refused to speak with Nolde and Smith, which made it harder
for them to present a balanced story. Keeping in mind that the serious
allegations against him could be false, the reporters tried to write
their story as cautiously as possible.
Still, they anticipated that some would see their story as biased against
Shoemake. "I think that no matter what you do, it will come out
sounding less than fully balanced, especially when one side won't talk,"
Confidentiality was another question raised in the Shoemake case. When
one of the plaintiffs' mothers agreed to speak with Nolde and Smith,
they decided not to disclose her name, as it would effectively reveal
her daughter's identity. The reporters also decided to withhold other
pieces of information that might reveal the girl's identity. However,
with the mother's permission, they did print the disturbing yet revealing
detail that the mother is related to Shoemake.
By not revealing facts about an important source, did Nolde and Smith
lessen the credibility of their story? In the end, they did not think
so. "It's not just a matter of withholding names," explained
Nolde. "You have to say, is [providing] this piece of information
worth giving her identity away?"
Journalists face a dilemma when potentially valuable public records
are officially sealed. This was a problem for Samuel E. Kennedy and
Lyssa R. Mudd, who searched for documents relating to the investigation
of the Norrell murder (See RECORDS). The
Pittsburg Police, with the support of county judges, have sealed or
significantly condensed many of the documents related to the Norrell
case. This made it difficult to construct an accurate picture of the
course of the investigation.
The missing information raised Kennedy's and Mudd's suspicions about
the connections between the Norrell investigation and the dropping of
criminal charges against Shoemake. But they had little evidence to confirm
The SPJ code of ethics encourages journalists to write only what they
can verify and to avoid crossing the line between reporting and advocacy.
Instead of filling in the blanks in their research with speculation
or hearsay, the reporters decided to focus on how the lack of information
about the case raised questions. But they did not try to provide the
"All we can say is, 'This is what happened, [and] it raises questions,'"
said Mudd. She said it was necessary to put these questions in proper
context so that readers do not interpret them as facts or opinions.
The Berkeley journalists were fortunate to have nearly two weeks to
research and write their stories. Without the pressure of imminent deadlines,
the journalists could take the time to reflect on the ethical questions
before them. Such opportunities are luxuries in the fast-paced world
of modern journalism.
For the Berkeley journalists, the experience of working on this project
has taught them that ethics and job performance need not be mutually
exclusive. "I wonder what would happen to me in a career situation,
when making or breaking news would be my job," said Aroy. "Would
my ethics be compromised when I have a deadline in 30 minutes and need
a clip? I hope not."