Pioneer Press splashes suspect's HIV status and mugshot across front page

PiPress front page: Friday, September 25, 2009

Last Friday's Pioneer Press features the banner headline: "HIV—one more on-the-job risk cops face daily." Directly underneath is the name and mug shot of an 18-year-old suspect who is HIV-positive.

The story uses the tale of the suspect, who was bit by a police dog last week, to suggest that infection from disease is as much a job risk for cops as are bullets.

But was the suspect's medical privacy violated in the process?

It would be one thing if the suspect had cut himself and was actively trying to infect officers, but in this case, the guy was bleeding because the police dog had bitten him. Basically, the police created the threat to their health.

It also must be said that the officers were at very low risk, especially if they took basic precautions like wearing rubber gloves. Indeed, as staff writer Maricella Miranda concedes in the story, "no workers in Minnesota reportedly have contracted HIV on the job since the state Health Department began collecting information in 1982 on the human immunodeficiency virus...." (Miranda did not return a call requesting comment.)

There's also the suspect's age to consider: At 18 years old, he's just barely an adult, and now his HIV status has been revealed, both in print and online, where it will forever live in Google.

And what did the kid do to deserve being put at the top of the front page? Murder? Rape?

No, he was a suspect in a property crime: "a home burglary and an aggravated robbery." That, and the poor decision to flee from the cops.

Did the punishment fit the crime?

Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, reviewed the story and the front-page treatment at our request.

"The one question that I have is, how do they know he's HIV-positive, because they didn't cite a source," McBride says. "I'm assuming it's the cops that told them, and then the question becomes: What are cops doing releasing that information?"

Good question. Next we called Paul Schnell, the St. Paul Police Department spokesman prominently quoted throughout the Pioneer Press story. Schnell said he was surprised when the Pioneer Press called and asked about the suspect's HIV status.

"We didn't even know it until the criminal complaint came out and the Pioneer Press called me about it," Schell says. "When I was contacted, I kind of wondered where the idea had come from, and then I was told it came from the complaint."

Pioneer Press editor Thom Fladung says the police report was found during the routine process of checking arrest records, and it was precisely the HIV angle that was of interest to him and the newsroom.

"It was interesting that it was coming up. It almost felt like something from the mid-'80s," Fladung says. "At the time, this was quite an issue, and there were a lot of lot of gloves being handed out."

Fladung makes no apologies for the decision to feature the suspect's HIV status along with his name and mug shot.

"I don't assume having HIV is a mark of shame, any more than having cancer or any other illness," Fladung says. "The second thing is, newspapers name names. So I approach it from that perspective. We name crime suspects all the time. Why shouldn't we name this one?"

McBride says newspapers no longer shy away from revealing HIV status when it's crucial for a story. But in this case, she wonders whether the suspect's name and photograph really needed to be given prominent display.

"The question is: Is there an alternative to identifying the guy?" McBride asks. "The fact that this particular burglar is HIV-positive is not as crucial to the story so much as the fact that they arrested a burglar, he was bit by a dog, and bled all over the cops. It's not the name that's important in this case." 

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