Usually media errors claim few dramatic victims: a misspelling here, a fake photo there, but no real harm to private citizens—no lives or livelihoods destroyed. But with the pervasiveness and breadth of the Web, the occasional truly harmful mistake has become both more lasting and more easily spread.
This is the problem faced by Cornell University professor Stephen L. Morgan, whose drivers license photo was disseminated by Wesleyan University and identified as the image of a suspected murderer last May. The Republican American, a newspaper in Waterbury, Conn., explained the story and Morgan’s resulting lawsuit against Wesleyan in an exclusive front-page article in the November 30 issue.
“His ordeal…serves as a glaring example of what can happen in the heat of the moment in an age of instant communication,” writes Republican-American reporter George Krimsky.
In a less damaging story, the erroneous photo might have been a minor mistake: a run of the mill same-name mixup. Oh wait, not that Stephen Morgan… The other Stephen Morgan.
However, in this instance, a man named Stephen P. Morgan was the suspect in the murder of Wesleyan University junior Johanna Hustin-Jinich in a near-campus bookstore. When police found evidence linking the crime to someone named Stephen Morgan, they pulled the drivers license photo of a Cornell University professor named Stephen L. Morgan and passed it on to Wesleyan to inquire whether the man in the photo had any relationship to the university.
At that point, according to the Republican-American and other media reports, Wesleyan sent out the photo in an online alert to students, faculty and parents, even though police say they never authorized the university to release the photo. By the time it became clear that the photo was not that of the suspected killer, but of another Stephen Morgan, it had already spread to television news reports, and been featured on CNN.
According to Krimsky, it was at this point–when Morgan saw his own image live on CNN in a story about a murderer–that the photo mix up becomes more than a minor mistake. A Hartford Courant report states that CNN ran the photo “with with a report saying ‘police believe he may be targeting the school and Jews,’ according to the lawsuit.” Professor Morgan argues that he has suffered emotional and professional damage as a result of being mistaken for a potentially antisemitic murderer.
“Being called a homicidal racist is not good for one’s career,” Morgan’s attorney told the Republican-American.
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The image remained on a Wesleyan website under headlines like “MAN HUNT UNDERWAY” for almost 17 hours (even longer on other media sites) and still could be found on some blogs six months after then murder, according to Krimsky. Stinkyjournalism turned up this page, which still has Morgan’s photo (with the blue background) as of December 9, 2009.
Krimsky argues in his article that the instantaneousness of modern communication contributed to the damage against Stephen L. Morgan. If Wesleyan hadn’t been able to distribute the photo so widely so quickly, Morgan may have been spared having his visage marked as a murderer on national television and beyond.
Yet, it also seems arguable that the miscommunication or misunderstanding between police and university officials played a primary role here as well. According to Krimsky’s article, police gave the photo to Wesleyan to determine if the man pictured was involved with the university. Though sending the photo out to a large group of students, teachers and parents was clearly a bad choice in this case, it’s not hard to see how such an act may have seemed like the best way to rapidly find out if anyone on campus knew the man in the photo.
And what of the responsibility of the news media that adopted the photo? Krimsky’s article doesn’t explain exactly how the image passed from Wesleyan students and staff to outlets like CNN Did these reporters fact check the photo with police?
Stephen L. Morgan, meanwhile, is suing Wesleyan only and not any outlets of the news media. Krimsky reports that this is because the university has failed to apologize or offered to help Morgan clear his name. Stephen P. Morgan, the real murder suspect, is jailed without bail. His next court appearance is on Dec. 15, 2009.
Thus far, the Republican-American article “Wrong Suspect Files Suit” is not online, but more coverage of the issue is available in this AP report.