Last week, a family of five in Staten Island died in a house fire. After initially blaming 14 year-old C.J. for killing his family, police backtracked yesterday, saying the mother did it. To whom does the media owe an apology?
After all, once they heard the police's initial theory that C.J. had cut his sisters' throat—and his own—before setting the house on fire, the city's journalists ran with it. Over the last few days, multiple stories appeared in the city's papers hashing out C.J.'s various troubles at school and at home and speculating on how he had harbored these murderous feelings.
Those stories are now embarrassing, at best. In retrospect, reporters and editors should have been more skeptical of the wild theory, floated before autopsy results came in that contradicted it. Susan Dominus, who wrote her last column about C.J.'s demons, today takes her medicine:
So the investigation is still not over, and it was certainly not over on Saturday, when this column tried to grapple with the psychological state of a young man thought to have wiped out his family. I might have better used that space to wonder at least about fire officials' rapid arrival at such a stunning conclusion.
Maybe not the most humble apology, but it's the most forthright you'll find in any of the NYC papers today. In the media's defense: reporters take their cues from what police tell them. It has always been thus. When cops fuck up, or finger the wrong suspect, the media inevitably makes that person's life a living hell of implied guilt, until they're cleared, at which time the media usually disappears without a word. See the case of Richard Jewell for the most iconic example. This dynamic is unlikely to change, unless you, the public, decide to stop being interested in crime stories. So, never. The best we can ask is that the media play up the obligatory note of skepticism—that reporters make an honest effort to convince the reader that a theory is not a known fact.
Sorry again, C.J.