By Denise Tessier
A reader of ABQJournalWatch.com sent us a tip this week saying:
It is truly the end of ethical journalism when rumors, conspiracy theories and misinformation posted by random people on the Internet are considered worthy of printing in the state’s largest newspaper.
The reader was objecting to Albuquerque Journal reporter James Monteleone’s injection of online rumors of a gay relationship into his front-page Sunday story (June 19) about the slaying of a well-known Farmington doctor and the teenager who allegedly confessed that he was responsible for the doctor’s beating death.
I appreciate the reader’s input – and encourage all readers to send in items they find questionable — as it sent me back to the story with a more focused eye.
But I have to report – after reading the comment stream that accompanied the Farmington Daily Times story and re-reading the Journal’s account of the crime – that Monteleone handled the rumors appropriately in mentioning them. Here is what Monteleone’s story said:
. . .many people in this community of about 45,000 residents are intent on understanding why.
Seeking to explain the violence, some fanned rumors on the local newspaper’s online comment section saying the single doctor was gay and had a relationship with the teen that turned sour.
Investigators, family and friends all say the claim is mean-spirited and without any evidence to suggest it’s accurate.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O’Brien said he believes the theory is little more than a way for some residents to reassure themselves that there isn’t risk of a random attack in their community.
Here’s why I say Monteleone handled the rumor mill appropriately.
Monteleone was a Farmington Daily Times reporter before joining the Journal and has a connection to the community. But like any good reporter, he became aware of the allegations that jarringly interrupted the flow of sentiments expressing shock or sympathy posted on the Farmington paper’s comment stream. He had to mention the rumors in order to publicly discount them.
He did not give these rumors undue attention. They weren’t mentioned until the very end of a lengthy report – paragraph 35 in a 41-graph story (not counting the sidebar profile on the 17-year-old being held). Monteleone then immediately dismissed the rumors via the official pronouncement of the chief deputy district attorney in graph 38. And, he had already dismissed the rumors at the outset of his reportage, in these fourth and fifth paragraphs about the death of Dr. Jim Nordstrum and the teen suspect, John Mayes:
Mayes told police he didn’t know Nordstrom but that the doctor’s house, perched at the top of a Farmington hill, caught his eye.
“Right now, we have zero connection” between the victim and the suspect, said San Juan County Sheriff’s Capt. Tim Black last week. “Generally, a crime this violent is between people that know each other. That’s not lost on us … but we can’t find anything.”
So, why include them to discount them?
Because the rumors had started to take on a life of their own, so much so that Troy Turner, editor of the Farmington Daily Times, felt compelled to write an editorial message calling for compassion and reason from Farmington residents:
Relatives and friends of both families have criticized the newspaper for sharing too many details, and some also have vented that same frustration with authorities for giving the media so much information.
Yet, not reporting those details only feeds the gossip monster more with rumors and wildly fictionalized accounts.
Turner condemned as “poison” the comments on what he described as the “online Topix forum associated with but not owned by this newspaper.” And he noted that Farmington’s city manager – the father of the teen suspected in the slaying – had become “an easy target” for that venom:
. . .insensitive postings by cowards hiding behind anonymous names poke tiny daggers of pain and suffering over and over into any poor target that dares try to breathe a positive difference in this society.
Turner’s editorial concludes with this:
And so here we are.
A 17-year-old sits in jail, likely for the remainder of his life.
His parents face the prospect of having lost their son, and the additional scrutiny of those who seed hate.
A doctor dedicated to saving lives had his stolen.
His family must grieve while witness to a crossfire of nosy outsiders.
A community is rocked.
Perhaps, folks, it’s time to reflect and consider.
We’re all better than this.
We’re all connected by this.
It takes a village to raise a child.
It takes you to define the village.
So, it falls to reporters and editors to call out anonymous posters who mouth off with speculation and just plain meanness, without thought toward veracity or how their postings hurt the people involved. Monteleone (and Turner) stepped up to attempt to set the record straight. But for a reporter, it’s not necessarily where one wants to go. Because, as our reader’s comment suggests, when stepping into the rumor muck one runs the risk of dirtying one’s own shoes — appearance-wise anyway.