How a St. Louis TV reporter got both ethics and facts wrong

I'm baffled today by some Twitter exchanges that started off being about journalism ethics and ended up being about the basic facts of a huge national news story that a reporter on the story had 100 percent wrong.

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  1. One of the biggest news stories of the year unfolded this week in Columbia. Ryan Ferguson, who had been in prison for years for a murder he has always said he didn't commit, was released. His case has drawn international attention, and his supporters have been vocal and passionate.

    Ryan Ferguson made his first public appearance at a news conference just after being released on Tuesday. Our staff at the Columbia Missourian covered the news conference (here's the complete coverage from the Missourian, available to digital subscribers), along with a packed house of local, regional and national journalists.

    A couple of people I follow on Twitter — both of whom have some journalism experience and not-infrequent observations about the state of the news biz — were commenting on whether it was appropriate for reporters to be hugging Ryan Ferguson and his family after the news conference.
  2. Melanie Moon, a reporter for KPLR in St. Louis, was at the news conference. She joined the conversation, saying that she was driven at least in part by her sense of what's right and wrong. (It's not clear to me how she found the conversation a day after it happened, but it's clear that she was responding to Scott Charton's tweet.)
  3. In the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian and in my Participatory Journalism class, we talk a lot about ethics, including what it means to be a human being, not just a journalist. We talk about embracing our humanity in our journalism. We can't pretend we don't have feelings about what we cover, but we need to know when showing those feelings is appropriate. I have fairly broad views about what's allowable, and so I welcome the chance to participate in these conversations. 
  4. But instead of responding to the question of journalists' celebrations, Moon continued to take the conversation in the direction of Ferguson's guilt or innocence. Her argument for having been hugging the family seemed to be rooted in her belief that he was innocent and that there was no reason not to join in the celebration of justice having been served. 

    Note: Moon's tweets have since been deleted.
  5. We picked it back up this morning. 
  6. Moon tweeted back to Renee Hulshof, possibly in reference to Hulshof's husband, former prosecuting attorney Kenny Hulshof, who has been involved in cases that were overturned on judicial review. I include this exchange because I think it speaks to Moon's willingness to inject a snarky opinion into public conversation, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm misrepresenting her intent here.
  7. Moon also quoted to me from a court document. But she got it so, so wrong.
  8. The court's ruling on Tuesday didn't address Ferguson's innocence. He was released from prison on a Brady violation, over a matter of withheld evidence. The ruling was complicated — so complicated that the Columbia Missourian did a pretty long story explaining the ins and outs. It says, in part, this: "The judges concluded unanimously that the Brady material evidence withheld was so significant that it undermined the court's confidence in the conviction. In other words, it was not sure that if the jury had heard this information, that it would have believed Trump and convicted Ferguson."

    Let me be clear: Ferguson was not found to be innocent. He was released because of a problem with the trial. In the national hype over the case, that fact has gotten overlooked or ignored by many. A couple of us said that back to her.
  9. And then, remarkably, she stood by it.
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