"The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects until they are charged." Last Tuesday, June 22, that familiar, high-minded phrase was conspicuously absent from the paper's front-page coverage of Donald Albin Blom's arrest the previous day. Not only did the Star Tribune identify Blom; its stories noted his myriad aliases, his extensive criminal record, and even included damning excerpts from a psychological evaluation done on him in 1992. All this despite the fact that it wasn't until late Wednesday that Blom, a convicted sex offender, was charged with kidnapping 19-year-old Katie Poirier from a Moose Lake convenience store on May 26. Poirier has been missing ever since.
On any other day, the paper's decision to break precedent might have gone unnoticed. As managing editor Pam Fine points out, it's not all that unusual for the Star Tribune to make exceptions to its carefully worded policy regarding the naming of suspects--especially, as in this instance, when the case is high-profile and charges seem imminent. Besides, by the time the paper came out on Tuesday, many local media outlets had already blared the 50-year-old Richfield man's name, his criminal convictions, even his foggy mug shot. But as it happened, three prominent local media sources--the Associated Press, WCCO-TV (Channel 4), and Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW 91.1 FM)--did just the opposite, choosing not to name Blom until after he was charged.
For some in the news business, deciding whether to identify Blom prior to his being charged was a question of ethics, of balancing the rights of the accused with the public's right to know. For others it was simply a calculated risk: If he's charged, you're ahead of the story; if he's set free, you have some explaining to do.
MPR's senior news director Bill Buzenberg told his staff to make sure all copy was free of the suspect's name. "What if he's not charged?" Buzenberg posited when called for comment for this story before Blom was charged. "Then you have a Richard Jewell situation. I think the media was wrong then, printing the name of a suspect in the Olympic bombing before he was charged. And I think they're wrong now. Of course, I've learned to never say never in this business. But in this case I'm surprised how the local newspapers have run Blom's name without hesitation. I'm concerned that the media in general is convicting someone who's not yet been convicted, let alone charged [at that time]."
Mark Ginther, assistant news director at KSTP-TV (Channel 5), says the issue was a topic of discussion in his newsroom. "The majority concluded we should run his name and picture," Ginther reports. "That's because the Carlton County sheriff held a press conference, handed out a photo, and went to great lengths to explain the specifics of the arrest. That's unusual in a story like this. We talked through all the scenarios, looked at his previous convictions in similar cases, and concluded viewers deserved all the facts."
Counters WCCO news director Ted Canova: "It's not like we withheld information about this suspect's prior convictions by not naming him. We reported all the same information as everyone else. But the guy was in custody. He wasn't a public threat. So why reveal his identity prematurely? It's no surprise that journalists rank with used-car salesmen in public perception. We shouldn't just regurgitate everything we know. We have to use perspective and consider issues of fairness." In initial reports that followed the arrest, WCCO news anchor Don Shelby put some spin on Canova's rationale, explaining to viewers that his station was withholding the suspect's name so as not to hamper the police investigation and the ongoing search for Poirier.
Walker Lundy, editor of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, is unmoved by the argument that Blom's reputation might have been unfairly sullied. Ethically speaking, he's from the old school, where a paper's responsibility was to its readers, period. "I'm uncomfortable with any policy that allows for inconsistency," says Lundy. "So our policy is that if we know something to be a fact, we publish it. And it was a fact that this fellow was arrested and being held. I can't accept the idea that it's unfair to publish the name of someone arrested and not charged, but somehow more fair to print the name of someone charged but not convicted."
Responds WCCO's Canova: "I think that's a copout. You don't get charged unless there's compelling evidence. This isn't about waiting for something to play out in the judicial process. This is balancing the public's right to know with a suspect's right to fairness."
Still, Canova admits, even WCCO will bend its rules, depending on the circumstances. In 1996, for instance, the "Hometown Team" was quick to identify Brad Dunlap, who was a suspect in the murder of his wife Anne, but who has yet to be charged. "When someone dies, family members are always put under a big microscope. And that, more than the arrest, seemed to be the story," the news director rationalizes.
Carlton County Sheriff David Seboe has no quibble with the news organizations that outed Blom. He is, however, steamed that three local TV stations, KARE-TV (Channel 11), KMSP-TV (Channel 9), and KSTP, ignored his request that his mug shot not be run. "We put out his mug shot at the first press conference, which is standard practice. Then, after thinking about it, we decided that if it got out, it could taint our witness pool," the sheriff says, explaining that he was planning a lineup for Tuesday morning and didn't want to give Blom the future opportunity to argue that the prosecution's two best witnesses were biased because they'd watched the nightly news. "We then sent out a fax to all the news organizations, requesting that they not publish the mug shot until noon the next day."