Journalists take ‘witness’ role seriously
“Fake news!” are the cries journalists hear these days more than most prefer to admit.
It’s unfortunate and disheartening because in my more than 25 years in this business, I can think of not one journalist that I knew personally who ever intentionally attempted to steer a story in any specific direction.
Ironically, it sometimes ends up being the opposite.
Undoubtedly, we’re all trained to report in a fair and balanced manner. But we also know well our own opinions, and in all cases, journalists must fight for nothing less than accuracy, fairness and balance. We must never allow our position on things like politics sway us, or our outrage on things like the death of an innocent child enter our reporting.
This includes all stories — even those that the subject will never read.
I’m not speaking about subjects who are going away to prison. Even they might catch a glimpse of our coverage someday.
Rather, I’m speaking about media observations and coverage of executions.
Several inmates from Mahoning and Trumbull counties sit on death row. Now, many states are exploring the elimination of the death penalty. We all have an opinion on this topic. Indeed, it will continue to be very hotly debated for many years to come.
But the reporter who covers the issue and an execution must not allow his or her feelings about the death penalty enter the scope of the story.
Here’s a good example of why.
Last month, The Associated Press reported that some executioners in Chicago might have “sanitized” their accounts of deaths in a number of federal executions.
According to the article, executioners who put 13 inmates to death in recent months likened the process of dying by lethal injection to falling asleep and called gurneys “beds” and final breaths “snores.”
But those tranquil accounts are at odds with reports by The Associated Press and other media witnesses of how prisoners’ stomachs rolled, shook and shuddered as the pentobarbital took effect inside the U.S. penitentiary death chamber in Indiana.
Sworn accounts by executioners, which government filings cited as evidence the lethal injections were going smoothly, raise questions about whether officials misled courts to ensure the executions were carried out before death penalty opponent Joe Biden became president.
Now, secrecy surrounds all aspects of executions. In these cases, the courts relied on those carrying them out to volunteer information about glitches. None of the executioners mentioned any.
That’s why truthful media accounts are so critical.
Questions about whether inmates’ midsections trembled as media witnesses described were a focus of litigation throughout the run of executions. Inmates’ lawyers argued it proved pentobarbital caused flash pulmonary edema and pain akin to suffocation or drowning.
The U.S. Constitution prohibits execution methods that are “cruel and unusual.”
This newspaper, of course, has sent media witnesses — local reporters — to witness and cover executions on the state level. We haven’t gone because we intended to sensationalize or glorify the death. We didn’t go so we could write a splashy story and sell newspapers.
Rather, we went because we were fulfilling our duty as a neutral party that can report fairly and accurately for the record and for all the public to read what exactly happened in Ohio’s death chamber. We would help record for history’s sake whether the execution was halted or unsuccessful or whether the inmate, indeed, departed this world, and in doing so, outline any unique or unusual details about the process.
A person’s life is ending at the hands of our government. Indeed, the public has every right to know exactly what took place.
This is just one more example — one very important example — of the importance of media’s role in reporting accurately and fairly.
The future of the death penalty in many states still remains in question, and the media will continue to report on that legal debate and, of course, on any executions that take place in the interim.
Despite those ongoing cries of “fake news,” we will continue to accept our role responsibly.