Grand jury invites journalists to appear

Request causes stir among news media

June 17, 2011|By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

The cryptic email went out this week to some of the region's news media — including WMAR-TV and The Baltimore Sun — asking journalists to appear before the city's grand jury, which plans to spend the next few months analyzing the impact of crime coverage on efforts to end violence.

It's a sort of term project squeezed in between criminal indictments, and a decades-old tradition for the panel. In addition to evaluating state's evidence, the 23 grand jurors in the city also examine a social issue during their four-month tenure and make recommendations for change.

But the latest proposal is causing a stir among some of the grand jury's subjects before the project has even begun.

"We're contacting our lawyer because it's very weird," said Kelly Groft, news director for WMAR-TV. "We cover [grand juries]; we're not in them."

The Sun, too, is studying the issue. "It's an unusual request, and we're looking into it," said Triffon G. Alatzas, the paper's head of digital media and one of its top editors.

Reporters typically seek information from the government, not the other way around. And juries in particular can make the breed nervous, bringing to mind images of jailed journalists who refuse to reveal a story's source.

"No. Uh-uh, you don't want to do this," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "There are too many things that you can't control. You have no idea what they're going to ask or what they're going to [do with the information]. It's a risky proposition on so many levels."

The two-paragraph email was sent Wednesday to two editors at The Sun by Jury Commissioner Nancy M. Dennis. It talked about the "Grand Jury's inquiries" and an interest "in meeting with the local news director and crime reporter" to "learn how decisions are made to select stories … and how the stories are presented."

"I sent it to all of the media outlets, the same questions," Dennis said during a follow-up phone call Thursday. She said there are no plans to issue subpoenas.

"This is informational, and their discussion with you is not under oath or anything. It' s a conversation," Dennis said. "This is not unusual. Each term gets a charge to examine a public [issue]."

The city's grand jury has previously studied violence in schools, public confidence in police, drug abuse and prison health care. It issues a report at the end of the term and often offers recommendations for officials to act upon.

In 1896, for example, one grand jury suggested that a neglected prison whipping post should be put back into regular use to reduce "cases of wife beating."

This time, the topic is the media, "so that citizens can have a better understanding how stories are run and how [they're] selected," Dennis said, referring further questions to Baltimore Circuit Judge Kendra Y. Ausby, who gave the jury its assignment this term, which began in May.

Ausby did not return a call asking for details about the charge or the impetus behind it.

"My knee-jerk reaction is that government ought to be government and journalists ought to be journalists. You really shouldn't be an extension of crime fighting," said Ben Holden, a lawyer and former reporter who now directs the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Courts and Media at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Serving on the grand jury would be fine, he said, as would discussing the same topics with a college class or committee. But doing it as part of a government inquiry for an official report makes him squeamish.

"It's a slippery slope down which we should not go," Holden said.

Maryland's grand juries are private by design, and members take an oath of secrecy. They are tasked with evaluating evidence in cases to see if charges are warranted and can also launch independent investigations as they see fit. They have the power to compel testimony from high places in deciding whether to indict.

"Grand juries are secret bodies, and we're not in the creating-secrets business," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. But he thought any criticism was overblown and counterproductive, given the presumed good intentions of the grand jury.

"If you refuse to participate, you [could be] actually damaging your reputation in the community because it looks like you're not a good citizen," he said. "We can't look like hypocrites when we say we're in the business of serving the public good."

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