Special problems when juveniles are newsmakers
The Des Moines Register had to work through a labyrinth of ethical decisions when it covered the story of “the boy with a broken heart.” Did the paper break another boy’s heart in the process?
By Richard Paxson
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. 2 (May 1990), pp. 1, 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.
The 14-year-old boy told the reporter it was “just regular seventh-grade stuff” when he punched a classmate in the back. But it stopped being lunch-hour horseplay when the classmate died of a broken heart.
Jody Collins didn’t know then he would be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Justin “Charlie” Cupples. He didn’t know angry neighbors in Newton, Iowa, would splatter his house with eggs. And he couldn’t know that he had set off seven months of tough decisions for editors at The Des Moines Register on how to treat juveniles as newsmakers.
Over and over, Jody said he didn’t know Charlie,13, had a plastic valve sewn into his heart a month before to fix a birth defect. When Jody hit Charlie, the blow ripped out stitches holding the valve in the aorta, according to the autopsy report. Charlie’s heart stopped beating.
Attendants in the helicopter ambulance restored his heartbeat on the way to Des Moines, but the lack of oxygen had damaged his brain and he was in a coma.
The Register‘s first story came on September 26, 1986, Charlie’s last day alive. Reporter Nick Lamberto heard Jody’s name as he prepared that story, but the focus was on Charlie’s condition and the search for a transplant heart. There was no real pressure yet to face the issue of naming Jody.
But Charlie died that afternoon, and reaction around Newton was intense. Who was the bully who killed popular Charlie? Classmates told Charlie’s family and police that Jody struck Charlie.
Register editors discussed naming Jody, but decided not to identify him because no official would say he was involved. The Register usually did not identify juveniles who were charged with crimes, and Jody hadn’t even been charged with anything.
The next step was getting Jody’s version of what happened. After trying unsuccessfully to reach Jody’s parents by phone, Lamberto went to their home.
Jody answered the door. Lamberto identified himself, said he wanted to talk about what happened to Charlie, and Jody invited him in. Jody acknowledged he was the other boy involved.
Jody said he wanted his stepfather to be present. He shouted upstairs but got no answer. While they waited, Lamberto kept asking questions, which Jody answered. Jody called for his stepfather a second time, and this time the man shouted back, “I don’t want to talk to anyone.”
As Lamberto was leaving, Jody began to cry. “I’m sorry that I hit him and I’m sorry that he died,” Jody said. “. . . If you see his folks, will you say I’m sorry for what happened?”
Lamberto explained the circumstances to editors. Should Jody be quoted? Should he be named?
While some might question whether Jody understood the potential implications of being quoted in a story because he was a juvenile, he seemed no less capable of understanding the situation than many adults who are quoted in newspapers every day. The editors believed he understood he was being interviewed by a reporter and his statements would be published.
He could have refused to answer questions, but he did not. In fact, he was reasonably articulate in telling his side of the story, and his self-defense provided a far more sympathetic picture of his situation than the public was getting elsewhere. The editors decided to let Jody tell his side of the story in print.
Critics (see Deni Elliott’s article) might say the newspaper had some responsibility to protect Jody from himself, but surely no more responsibility than his stepfather had. He knew his stepson was being interviewed and did not object when he could have done so simply by walking downstairs.
Whether to name Jody in that story was the subject of longer debate.
Jody acknowledged he was the one who hit Charlie. It seemed most everyone in Newton, a town of 15,000, already knew that, so who were we hiding the information from? There was no compelling evidence that his situation was going to be made worse by publication of his name; eggs already had been tossed at his home and at a van he was riding in. Neither Jody nor his family asked us not to name him.
On the other hand, Jody was a minor, and the newspaper’s practice was to shy away from naming juveniles.
In the end — partly because the newspaper’s lawyers were worried about the possibility of a privacy lawsuit — Jody was not named in the story.
Four days later, Jody was charged as a juvenile with involuntary manslaughter and assault and his identity was put into the public record. The Register had precedent for naming juveniles accused of serious crimes or those that attracted widespread public interest (1,000 people went to Charlie’s funeral).
Radio and television news reports immediately named Jody. It was pointless to withhold the name from newspaper readers any longer. Jody was named for the first time on October 4.
Register editors, and presumably readers, wanted to know whether anything in Jody’s background might explain his aggressive behavior.
Lamberto discovered Jody had been one of the victims in a sex-abuse case four years earlier. Jody’s uncle had been his frequent baby-sitter when Jody was 10. According to court testimony, the uncle encouraged Jody and a younger boy to commit sex acts while the uncle watched.
Jody and the other boy testified in open court during the uncle’s trial for sexual abuse, using anatomically correct dolls. The Register wrote stories about the trial at the time without naming the boys.
A longtime neighbor of Jody’s family said the boy “has a temper more violent than other kids but I think that comes from . . . the kids making fun of him, then the sex abuse trial. I think his aggressiveness definitely is a defense.” Others confirmed that Jody liked to fight.
That suggested a link between possible psychological scars from the sex abuse and Jody’s alleged assault on Charlie. Editors were faced with the question of whether to publish this information.
The newspaper had a policy against naming sex abuse victims. The editors weighed Jody’s interests against the public’s right to know potentially relevant facts about an important local story. It also was clear that many in Jody’s hometown already were aware of the earlier case.
The editors decided to publish the story because of the intense public interest in the case and because the experience was likely to be part of his defense.
With the benefit of three years’ hindsight, would the decisions now be different? Interest has only intensified in crime by teenagers, violence in schools and the after-effects of sex abuse on children. If one valid definition of news is “what people want to know”, then the stories would have even more value today.
Jody was found guilty of reckless assault, but a judge stopped the manslaughter trial and put Jody on probation for a year. The judge said he was swayed by a doctor’s testimony that cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts might have contributed to dislodging Charlie’s heart valve, but he held Jody responsible for starting a chain of events that ended in death.