Paying for test, ABC raises ethical question

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Report: The network paid for DNA analysis in several unsolved Baltimore cases, leading some to wonder how to judge the evidence.

January 23, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

To say someone has engaged in "checkbook journalism" is a terrible slur inside the profession. It suggests that a reporter has descended into the mire of the tabloids and outrageous daytime talk shows by paying for information, access or interviews.

To say that a journalist has collaborated with public officials in reporting a story raises hackles, too. It suggests a surrender of independence.

In a piece set for broadcast on Friday, however, ABC News has done both to a degree, to illustrate a riveting and hidden story. Yet the network's findings are likely to generate more praise than condemnation.

Last spring, ABC's Brian Ross and Brenda Breslauer set out to test the claims of former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir. He claimed that many rapists are never identified because city police agencies nationwide lack the money to test the DNA in physical evidence collected in such cases.

Ross, one of the network's top investigative reporters, and Breslauer, an accomplished producer, called city after city, trolling for a receptive audience for their pitch. Breslauer asked police chiefs: What if ABC News paid for DNA analysis to be carried out on 25 or so unresolved sexual assault cases in their city?

Hungry for funds for that purpose, Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris - who served under Safir in New York - bit first. The police department agreed to contract with a private firm based in Virginia to analyze genetic material from fluids taken in 50 cases, with the city and the network splitting the cost. The police picked 50 cases, of which 39 yielded usable genetic material. The findings were compared to DNA samples of felons in state and federal genetic databases. Because many states, including Maryland, have a relatively small number of people on file, some experts doubted the analyses would turn up much.

The results are in.

According to ABC, four men have been newly charged in sexual assault and murder cases that had not previously been solved. And one man who had been imprisoned for three months has been exonerated by the DNA. "Obviously, without working with the police department, we don't have the evidence," Breslauer said.

Baltimore police said there are about 5,000 unsolved cases, including rapes, homicides, sexual assaults and other violent crimes in which physical evidence has not been tested for DNA. "It is a sad commentary for the state of law enforcement that it took a news network to come along and pay for this," Ross said.

Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, said the findings strongly influenced his group's decision to contribute $350,000 toward additional genetic testing of evidence from unsolved cases in Baltimore. The ABC analyses proves the testing "was worth doing both in the short run, initially, and in the long run," Embry said yesterday, just hours after his foundation announced the grant.

The Sun occasionally has paid people for their expertise. For ex- ample, the newspaper has paid for out-of-state or retired building inspectors to examine the safety of rowhouses neighboring condemned homes. And The Sun and other journalistic outlets pay for computer data to be mined by government agencies.

What ABC did was to take an additional step into unfamiliar journalistic terrain, by paying for analyses of evidence that are likely to be used in criminal cases.

Joseph Angotti, the former senior vice president at NBC News, called the technique unusual but promising. As long as Ross, a former colleague, made full disclosure of ABC's arrangements with the Baltimore police, Angotti said he has no problems with it. (Ross said he will make just such an announcement on the air.)

"It's a potential way to find out information that otherwise would not be available if more traditional journalistic methods had been used," said Angotti, now a professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "I can't recall anything like this happening before. On the surface, I don't think it's a problem. But somebody who teaches ethics may say, `Oh, my God.' "

And indeed, Robert M. Steele, head of ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalistic think tank, has some sharp questions for ABC and Ross. What could they have done otherwise?

Steele offered high praise for Ross' past work, and made clear he had not seen the story yet. But, he asked, did ABC staffers do all they could to shed light on the story in other ways? If the network got exclusivity, or first dibs on the clinic's results, Steele said, why is that different from paying for access? As he put it: "How did they avoid the ethical landmine of paying for information?"

The police department didn't publicize the lab results in anticipation of the ABC broadcast. But police officials were ultimately quoted by name in a story earlier this month by The Sun's Del Quentin Wilber, who reported on the ABC link to the DNA testing.

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