Ebony magazine is facing a $5 million libel lawsuit over 2013 reports by Frederic Rosen about the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson.
Johnson’s body was found in a rolled-up mat at his high school, Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., in January 2013. His parents think he was murdered but the police ruled it an accident, CNN reported. Johnson’s family has filed lawsuits against the school principal, the superintendent and the local board of education as well as the school district. The FBI is investigating Johnson’s death.
The lawsuit was filed by the parents of two boys who went to school with Johnson. The parents’ lawsuit claims Ebony made a “completely untrue” suggestion that their sons “played a part in Johnson’s death and their father was involved in a conspiracy to cover it up,” CNN reported.
CNN didn’t name the boys or parents in its report on the lawsuit. It said in its report that “CNN is not naming the students mentioned in the lawsuit because none of them has been named a suspect in the death of Johnson.”
On the other hand, a local Georgia news outlet, the Valdosta Daily Times, did name the parents and identified the father as an FBI agent, which would make the accusations that the boys and father covered up Johnson’s death appear more serious and more plausible. According to the Daily Times, the boys were given fake names in an article that appeared in the Nov. 19, 2013 edition of Ebony, but other students identified them and “ostracized” the boys.
The Valdosta Daily Times is published six days a week.
The boys’ mother told the Daily Times earlier this year about the case that “If you dare to stand up for what is truthful, you become a target for bullying and harassment.”
The boys’ parents say that neither of their sons were near the gym where Johnson was found. Further, the parents “claim Johnson Publishing and Rosen made no effort to verify the brothers’ presence elsewhere or lack of involvement in the Johnson death case before publishing the articles on Ebony.com,” according to the Daily Times.
All of Rosen’s articles have been unpublished, CNN and the Valdosta Daily Times reported.
iMediaEthics reached out to Rosen via Twitter for comment. We’ve also reached out to Ebony‘s editor-in-chief Mitzi Miller and the lawyer for the parents for comment.
UPDATE: 9/1/2014 2:42 PM EST The lawyer for the parents, Brice Ladson, told iMediaEthics said he can’t comment “outside of the record of the lawsuit.”
“This lawsuit is detailed and includes our demand letters. We look forward to clearing our clients’ names and recovering damages appropriate to the harm from a fair and impartial jury.”
Editor’s Note/Clarification: We added the word “appear” after receiving a complaint that this sentence below from the story above was unclear.
“On the other hand, a local Georgia news outlet, the Valdosta Daily Times, did name the parents and identified the father as an FBI agent, which would make the accusations that the boys and father covered up Johnson’s death appear more serious and more plausible.”
Sigh! You simply don’t know enough about this topic to attempt an article. The evidence clearing the brothers comes from the LCSO and in no way depends on the mothers statement. The LCSO established neither brother was near the gym when KJ died and the brothers have never been suspects; at all ever. Their father played no role in the investigation and no evidence has ever existed that he ever even spoke to one person involved in the investigation. To give you a little context the number one suspect for over a year in this case was the son of the local sheriff. The local sheriff has no son.
You also don’t even deal with the truthfulness of Rosen’s articles. He lied, clearly and in considerable volume. Easy to verify and unmistakeable.
If you don’t know a subject you probably shouldn’t cover it. Especially when you write under the banner media ethics.
Thank you for your comment and for reading. Our report isn’t on the investigation into Johnson’s death, but instead the media ethics issue of the libel lawsuit filed against Ebony.
As such, we reported on the factual information at hand: Johnson’s 2013 death, that there is an investigation into his death, that the parents of two boys at Johnson’s school are suing Ebony and its reporter for its articles involving their sons, and the relevant comment from the mother denying any link between her sons and the case . We also reached out to both sides of the case — Ebony and the reporter as well as the parents’ lawyer.
Your story in no way, shape or form deals with the ethics of the reporting on this case. It simply notes the suit has been filed. Would you like to cut and paste the para dealing with the ethics of the lawsuit or of the media coverage?
Your comment doesn’t address my complaint that the mother’s word is represented as the only piece of evidence that the brothers couldn’t have committed a murder. That’s a choice made by Mediaethics. Your response also doesn’t address this sentence “On the other hand, a local Georgia news outlet, the Valdosta Daily Times, did name the parents and identified the father as an FBI agent, which would make the accusations that the boys and father covered up Johnson’s death more serious and more plausible” which does seem to be a comment on the investigation. How does it make the claim more plausible? It looks like you are talking about the case in this instance.
At no point in this “report” did you ever even dip your toe into a discussion of media ethics. Spare me the meaningless rhetoric. It’s a twitter level report by a reporter with a twitter level understanding of the story.
In response to your coment:
1) Whether the boys are suspects:
We have written a brief news story that a lawsuit has been filed. It is not an in-depth of who will or should win the lawsuit that would require a review of all the evidence. If you have done this review, then you should write your own article somewhere.
We reported all the main points in our news judgment. Namely that Johnson’s death is currently under an FBI investigation, as we have reported. We also have reported that the police have thus far ruled it an accident. Further, our article noted that as CNN reported the boys aren’t suspects.
2) We did not say that the father was part of a cover-up. If you read our report, you will see we reported the parents are suing over the suggestion the father helped cover up the death. We also reported that the father is an FBI agent.
It is common knowledge in journalism and common sense that when people are identified by name and job, readers believe factual assertions as more plausible due to the appearance, if not the fact of tansparency. An FBI agent father, during an FBI investigation could have access to cover up a crime versus a regular civilian father. Our reporting doesn’t say that the father covered up the crime. Instead we pointed out that readers would be more likely to believe Ebony’s claims an FBI agent covered up the crime.
However, given your complaint we will add the word “appear” in our sentence for any readers that find it was unclear and provide a clarification saying so.
3) The parents’ lawsuit claims Ebony made a “completely untrue” suggestion that their sons “played a part in Johnson’s death and their father was involved in a conspiracy to cover it up,” CNN reported. We reached out to all parties and will update our news story if we get responses. Again, ours is a news story and not an in-depth analysis.
Thanks for replying Sydney. You’re right my expectations (which were my own) were far in excess of what you were doing. You put out; a short overview article. Thank you for your suggestion that I write my own article but I already have an extensive trail of commentary around the internet.
Cnn didn’t say the boys “weren’t suspects” they stated they had “not been named as suspects”. Your phrasing is closer to the truth. The police positively ruled them out as suspects in fact. The report that ruled the boys out wasn’t done by the FBI. It was done by the LCSO. That investigation was closed 5 months prior to Rosen’s article and readers assumptions might be nudged along because the complete context is absent from your article. The same assumption you made. Rosen’s article wasn’t about the FBI investigation.