Editors split on anti-drug coupons
How closely should newspapers cooperate with authorities to fight the drug problem? A coupon campaign has West Virginia editors wondering.
By Julie Kredens, staff writer
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 6 (September 1990), p. 8.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
They are known as “Enough!” coupons and they have been popping up in newspapers across West Virginia. Readers can fill out the coupons with the names of suspected drug dealers and users and return them to state police.
It was Williamson Daily News Editor Wally Warden who approached West Virginia State Police about the “Enough!” campaign. Warden had heard about a coupon program started by the Clinton (Iowa) Herald last fall and thought a similar campaign might work in his small town of Williamson in rural Mingo County.
Warden explained, “The only hesitancy I had was that we didn’t want to he perceived as an arm of the police department. We tried to keep the emphasis on this as something the police want you to do, rather than the newspaper wants.”
The first coupon ran in the Daily News in February, followed by three more. By June, state police had received almost 400 tips. A Mingo County drug raid around that time resulted in 43 arrests, about half the people had been named in “Enough!” coupons.
This success convinced state police to promote the “Enough!” campaign statewide. Information and camera-ready coupons were mailed to editors around the state, drawing a mixed response.
“It’s totally inappropriate (for a newspaper to do this). I just don’t think we should be promoting a state full of informers,” said Charleston Gazette Editor Don Marsh. Marsh added that trying to be both watchdog and participant could lead to serious conflict.
A Beckley Register-Herald editorial called it a “Snitch Coupon” with a huge potential for misuse and abuse. Editor Bill Byrd said, “It’s one thing to promote a teddy bear program for injured children . . . those types of soft pieces on crime fighting, but it’s another thing to print a coupon and ask people to clip it out and mail it to their local police.”
But the editor of The Logan Banner, Richard Osbourne, ran the coupon without hesitation. “As a community newspaper, we should do our part to help in fighting drugs in the community.”
Tom Goldstein understands this “civic-mindedness” but doesn’t believe it’s an appropriate role for journalists. Goldstein is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkley, and says a newspaper should be able to be critical of their police, but thinks “that critical edge is blurred when you are cooperating so closely.”
Agreeing with Goldstein is Lee Wilkins, associate dean for undergraduate studies at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Wilkins wonders if newspapers could be more effective by writing about the drug problem and keeping a critical eye on the way it is handled by police, in the courts, and in the schools.
But Ted Glasser, associate professor of communications at Stanford University, said, “Frankly, I don’t see anything terribly awful about this.” He equates the “Enough!” coupons with any anonymous tip line the police may set up.
Editors in other states may soon be facing the decision whether to publish “Enough!” coupons. West Virginia State Police say they have gotten requests for information from Connecticut to South Carolina, and from as far away as the Virgin Islands.