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Allowing Media Access To Unrepresented Mentally Ill Inmates Is Unethical

Today, The Virginian-Pilot published a story by reporter Caitlyn Burchett titled "Man accused in 3 homicides admits to killings, says he 'snapped' during argument with girlfriend." Based on the information in the story, less than 24 hours after Cola Beale was taken into custody on charges of three counts of murder, he "spoke with The Virginian-Pilot and other media outlets" and "admitted to all three slayings." As a criminal defense attorney, the story disturbs me and raises serious questions of journalistic ethics and jail policy of allowing unfettered media access to recent arrestees who are unrepresented and potentially mentally ill.

I am a strong supporter of freedom of the press and believe that the First Amendment rights of the press are vital to a functioning democracy. But like all rights, the freedom of the press is not limitless and reporters need to self regulate in order to ensure that their reporting also honors the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights of the accused to due process and a fair trial. Any conscientious and ethical reporter cares about all aspects of the Constitution and not just getting themselves a juicy scoop that ensures thousands of clicks. In my view, the Pilot failed to fulfill their basic duties of journalistic ethics by publishing this article. Despite the very nature of the crimes clearly indicating that Beale likely suffered from mental health issues, Burchett cast aside any concerns and interviewed Beale before he had access to an attorney, mental health professionals, or had even been arraigned by a judge. The article itself reflects that Burchett was aware of Beale’s potential mental health issues as she asked him “if he was of sound mind.” Tellingly, Beale’s response was “Nah.”

A former public defender, Stephen Cooper, has written on this very subject citing the standards “outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists (a leading voice on the subject of journalistic standards and ethics), adopted by the Center for Investigative Reporting, ‘reporters should strive to minimize harm.’ They are supposed to: ‘Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.’ They are admonished: ‘Pursuit of a news story is not a license for arrogance. Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves. Only an overriding need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy. Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.'"

In this situation, The Pilot and Burchett failed at every level to satisfy each of those standards. Instead, they knowingly exploited a mentally ill man. The Virginia Beach Jail also deserves blame. How does the Jail, which pledges on its website a mission to “provide for the security and care of inmates,” allow members of the media to stroll in and elicit damaging statements from mentally infirm inmates? Does the jail not have a basic ethical duty to put procedures in place to allow inmates access to legal assistance and mental health care before exposing them to the journalistic hounds? In light of this exploitative story, I urge the media and the jail to do some soul-searching and to develop policies regarding how they will treat situations of reporters seeking to interview vulnerable, mental health-impaired, unrepresented inmates in the future.


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