"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.


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 from newspapers around the nation, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post.

--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 privacy rights.

--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.

Jay 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 vary widely.

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.

Tom Leonard, 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. "You’re 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.

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," said Smith.

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 their hunches.

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 answers.

"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."