Experts question paper’s handling of sex offender reporter
The publisher of the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on Wednesday defended the paper’s handling of the hiring of a convicted sex offender to cover police and courts, and the paper’s editor said he had carefully screened Eric Blaisdell before hiring him this summer.
However, national experts in journalism ethics are raising concerns about the paper’s handling of the matter and allowing Blaisdell to report on sex crime cases.
Blaisdell, 27, an award-winning student journalist while at Lyndon State College, is a registered sex offender in both New Hampshire — where the Internet sex offenses took place six years ago — and Vermont, where he has worked since June.
“I applaud the efforts of the criminal justice system in fairly administering punishment to those who have broken the law and also offering an opportunity for rehabilitation,” said publisher R. John Mitchell in a statement to The Times Argus and its sister publication, the Rutland Herald. “This is an incredibly well supervised and restricted situation by the judge, the probation officer and a therapist, I am not going to second guess that process, am willing to participate in it and give it a chance.”
Blaisdell, a lifelong resident of North Haverhill, N.H., was caught in an Internet sex sting with police officers with the Southern Hillsborough County (N.H.) Cybersafe Task Force and a volunteer advocate with www.perverted-justice.com, an online vigilante group. He was 21 and a student at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, N.H., when he was arrested in February 2007 for soliciting sex with a 13-year-old girl in Walpole, N.H., who turned out to be a police officer.
He pleaded guilty to three felonies — the Vermont equivalent of attempted aggravated sexual assault — and was sentenced to a year in prison. He served nine months at the Grafton County jail in his hometown of North Haverhill, and remains on probation until November 2013 for one of the offenses.
The story detailing Blaisdell’s criminal history, which questioned his ability to cover cops and courts, was published in Wednesday’s Seven Days, a weekly publication in Burlington.
Neither Mitchell, General Manager Catherine Nelson, editor of The Times Argus Steven Pappas or Blaisdell spoke to Seven Days columnist Paul Heintz for the story, a decision criticized by media ethics experts at both the Poynter Institute and the Society for Professional Journalists.
The rule of the game in 2012 in journalism is transparency, transparency and more transparency, said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. McBride specializes in media ethics.
McBride, who has taught media ethics for the past 10 years, said she had never encountered such a question before.
The newspaper, which makes its living holding people in power accountable, should hold itself to the same standard, she said
McBride said that a convicted sex offender wasn’t automatically disqualified from being a reporter, but she said his beat needed to be managed with care, and she said she didn’t believe he should be covering stories involving sex offenders and sex crimes.
In the age of the Internet, McBride said, papers have to bend over backwards to be transparent, because anyone can research the background of people.
People will now read the reporter’s stories differently, she said.
“Once people know he’s a convicted sex offender, you will read his stories differently. Maybe it’s just the perception, but the effect on the audience is the same.”
Joining McBride in a push toward increased transparency was Fred Brown, a professor of communication ethics at the University of Denver, and vice-chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brown retired from a career at the Denver Post 10 years ago.
“Since the story was broken by another publication, telling the complete story is a public service. It’s a little bit of a cheap shot to rehash an old conviction,” said Brown, but once it’s out there, the paper has to respond.
Brown said that he didn’t believe Blaisdell should be covering sex offender stories. “Conflict of interest? It comes down to perception and there comes a point when you just have to let your audience judge for themselves. It’s an issue of fairness. You try to avoid it, but when you can’t avoid it, you explain it.”
Mitchell saw it differently. “The implication that we have been less than transparent is ridiculous and downright wrong. We have acted and will continue to act in the best interests of our community, our integrity and the rights of our employees.”
Mitchell, whose family has owned The Times Argus since 1964 and the Rutland Herald since 1948, said the two papers did not comment publicly or privately “about the details of our individual hiring practices other that to say generally we adhere to the highest professional standards.”
Blaisdell, in a telephone interview, said Wednesday that he was a college student coping with low self-esteem and confusion over his career path when he started using the Yahoo! Instant Messenger in 2006 to go on chat rooms and talk to underage girls. He said he knew it was morally wrong, suspected it might be criminal, but did it anyway.
Blaisdell said his criminal conviction was “devastating,” and he lost lifelong friends. He said he had worked hard to overcome the stigma. He had attended two years of the civil engineering program at Northeastern University in Boston, but had left because engineering wasn’t what he wanted to do.
After he got out of jail, he applied and was accepted at Lyndon State College. While there, officials knew of his background, and set restrictions on his activities, including prohibiting him from entering any dorm.
A court-imposed condition that banned him from using the computer was lifted by the New Hampshire courts for him to attend college, and then later work at The Times Argus. The court also prohibits him from having any contact with minors under the age of 16 unless supervised by a trained adult.
Blaisdell said by law he has to disclose to any employer that he is a convicted felon, and he disclosed that during his job interview with Pappas in June. The two had met at the annual awards meeting of the Vermont Press Association this spring, and Blaisdell said when The Times Argus posted job openings on www.journalismjobs.com, he applied.
Pappas confirmed Wednesday that Blaisdell had immediately disclosed his criminal history. Pappas said he had checked Blaisdell’s references and talked to the N.H. Department of Corrections. Everyone said that Blaisdell posed no risk to the general public, was contrite, and was working hard to put his life back together.
Blaisdell’s N.H. Department of Corrections therapist, Nancy Strapko of Plymouth, N.H., praised Blaisdell and the progress he has made during both group and individual therapy.
He poses no danger to the public, Strapko said, saying she had worked with sex offenders since 1985. .
Part of the problem of the sex offender registry, she said, is it lumps everyone together.
“One of the problems is the registry lumps every crime together. In my group there are 60-year-old men who have sex with 9-year-old girls, which is very disturbing behavior. Eric does not fall into that category. But with the Internet, it’s a whole new form,” she said.
Blaisdell was convicted of three counts of “certain uses of a computer, prohibited,” in New Hampshire.
Blaisdell said that he never had any physical contact with any of the females he met online. When they suggested meeting, he said, he came up with excuses.
“It was never my intention of following through. There was a lot of talk, a lot of talk, but I would come up with some excuse, and say, ‘Oh, my car broke down,’ or ‘My grandmother died.’”
Blaisdell said he was talking about his history to get his side of the story out.
“I think my side needs to be told,” he said.
Blaisdell said he didn’t feel he was “biased or had a conflict of interest” in covering sex cases in criminal court.
McBride, who has run “ethics bootcamp” for young reporters, said that Blaisdell’s view was common of people’s first year on the job.
McBride urged The Times Argus to mentor the rookie reporter on ethics and take him off sex crime stories.
Blaisdell said he had refused to cover a story about a halfway house in Berlin that involved sex offenders. But he said he saw no conflict in covering the “factual” stories coming out of Washington County criminal courts.
Pappas, his supervising editor, said he was confident in Blaisdell’s ability to cover the courts and crime stories.
Last week Blaisdell wrote a story about the Aldrich Library’s pilot program for “safe space” for teens, but talked to no teens for the story. Likewise, in a story about teen mothers, Blaisdell did not talk to girls under the age of 16, Pappas said.
In McBride’s belief, the library story is exactly the wrong kind of story for Blaisdell.
Blaisdell said he doesn’t know what the public perception will be and what the reaction will be to his reluctant disclosure.
“It’s going to take time, and I’ll see what the reaction is, and move forward,” he said. “That’s all I can do is move forward. I’m fearful it will compromise my ability to talk to people. People just see the word ‘sex offender’ ... I fear it’s going to make my job much harder.”
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