Last week the story that three women who had been held captive in a Cleveland, Ohio home for 10 years had been rescued caught the attention of the nation. As the media descended onto the neighborhood one resident, Charles Ramsey, emerged as a compelling made-for-TV witness. As Eric Deggans wrote on Poynter.org, TV outlets “could hardly resist an expressive, talkative guy given to calling every interviewer ‘bruh’ and using colorful metaphors to make his case. ‘I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,’ he told WEWS [of Cleveland]. ‘Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.’” You can watch a clip of one of Ramsey’s interviews above.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists, seeking the truth and reporting it is an important moral maxim for the media. In this case, we must reflect on whether it was necessary for the media to report on a particular truth. In the rush to investigate the story, some media outlets decided that it was appropriate to investigate Ramsey himself, perhaps as a way to assess his veracity. Arguably the most egregious reporting originated from the website The Smoking Gun, which reported that Ramsey was “once a repeat spousal abuser whose marriage ended in divorce following a 2003 felony conviction for battering his wife.” The website even posted one of Ramsey’s court documents. Their report continued:
“Ramsey’s first domestic violence charge came in February 1997. He entered a no contest plea a year later and was found guilty of the count by a Cleveland Municipal Court judge. While waiting to be sentenced, Ramsey was again arrested for domestic violence.
At the time of Ramsey’s second collar, in July 1998, he was already the subject of an arrest warrant issued in connection with his failure to appear for a court hearing in the first domestic violence case. As a result, Ramsey was jailed for violating terms of his release on bond. Ramsey subsequently entered a no contest plea to the second case and was, again, found guilty by a Cleveland judge.”
Local Cleveland television station WEWS-TV seemed to follow The Smoking Gun report, airing its own similar findings during at least one broadcast. However, viewers expressed their anger over the station’s probing into Ramsey’s past. The station later apologized in a post on its Facebook page:
“TO OUR READERS & FOLLOWERS: We heard you. Wednesday night, we made a poor judgment call in posting a story about Charles Ramsey’s criminal record and how he’s since reformed. While the story was factually sound, the timing of it and publication of such information was not in good taste, and we regret it. Your comments prompted us to quickly remove the story from our website and Facebook page, but we know we can’t erase what we’ve already done. Ramsey is a hero for his actions, and we recognize that. Thank you so much for your feedback.”
What this story reveals are the ethics of probing a witness’ past and sharing this information with the public. Did it matter that Ramsey was a convicted felon? MSNBC Politics Nation host Al Sharpton argued that it did not. “The dramatic story from Cleveland has shown us that an ordinary man, even an imperfect man, can be a hero,” he said. “We know what he did when he became famous for doing the right thing.”
Was it right for The Smoking Gun and WEWS-TV to look into Ramsey’s past? Was such an investigation even necessary? We say no. All that was necessary was to determine whether or not Ramsey was telling the truth; that is, to assess his credibility as a source or as a witness. Some reports seemed to take issue with Ramsey’s account of freeing Amanda Berry, one of the three women who were kidnapped. “I helped her and I was first,” Angel Cordero told WEWS-TV in Spanish. If so, if Ramsey really wasn’t the one who could be credited with helping to free the women, then that would need to be reported so as to correctly report what actually took place. But unless Ramsey’s background and his criminal history had a direct bearing on the rescuing of the women, it had no business being reported on.
Journalists certainly are obligated to seek the truth and report it. That Ramsey had a criminal record and was a convicted felon was certainly true. But was it really necessary to report it? What do you think?
Sources: Poynter.org, MSNBC, christianpost.com, WEWS-TV, thesmokinggun.com