by Mike Kroll

Journalistic responsibility

This past Saturday's (March 17) issue of the Peoria Journal-Star included a front-page story which stated: "Recently-appointed Knox County State's Attorney John Pepmeyer is being accused of physical and verbal sexual harassment, and Illinois State Police are investigating." The entire story is based upon a unnamed source(s) (who is apparently the alleged victim) and was unsubstantiated by any other named source. Despite a statement in the story's second paragraph that "some co-workers have filed a complaint with union representatives" the very same article later quotes a union spokesperson stating that "no official grievance has been filed." While a representative of the Illinois State Police confirmed that the ISP "received a complaint about some incidences on a Knox Count employee" the ISP "declined to name Pepmeyer." By the sixth paragraph in the PJ-Star story it should become clear to any critical reader just how irresponsible this reporting was. This article amounts to little more than supermarket tabloid journalism.

The following day (Sunday March 18) the Galesburg Register-Mail featured a related story in which Pepmeyer defended himself by saying: "I deny any and all acts and words of sexual impropriety with my employees. The allegations against me are the result of political revenge." However, the Register-Mail story reiterated none of the substance of the previous Journal-Star story other than to say "unnamed sources accused John Pepmeyer of sexual harassment" leaving Register-Mail readers who were unfamiliar with the Journal-Star article befuddled as to any of the relevant facts.

New information contained in the Register-Mail story includes statements by Pepmeyer that he is investigating allegations that a county employee had engaged in sexual improprieties with a federal prisoner about two years ago. The fact is that a Knox County Sheriff's Department employee was discharged for such activities and later employed as office staff in the Knox County State's Attorney's office under former State's Attorney Paul Mangieri. We have learned that indeed this is the employee who had spoken to the Journal-Stat reporter about allegations regarding Pepmeyer. We also have determined that it was these actions of the accuser that are being investigated by the Illinois State Police and that prior to the Journal-Star article the ISP were involved in no investigation of sexual harassment by Pepmeyer.

The Register-Mail story confirmed that the alleged victim had not yet filed a complaint with either the AFSCME union, any police agency or local Knox County officials. All this "additional" information was easily obtainable had the Journal-Star made even the slightest effort to look into the story beyond the statements of the accuser and perfunctory requests for comment to Pepmeyer.

The simple fact is that the original story should never have been published in any responsible newspaper. Unsubstantiated charges against a public figure by an unnamed party must be treated with the utmost of journalistic skepticism. It is the job of any reporter and editor to do everything in their power not to publish a story that may well be either misrepresentative of the facts or patently untrue. If the newspaper is at all unsure of the veracity of a story it is that newspaper's responsibility not to run the story.

It is an essential American legal principle that one is innocent until proven guilty but we frequently see news coverage of criminal investigations that identify suspects and evidence long before trial. This is appropriate where it is made clear what evidence actually ties the suspect to the crime and who the witnesses are arrayed against him or her. But it is also quite true that at almost any time any of us could be under investigation for some reason or another where we are innocent of any wrong doing and there is no credible evidence for charges. Most thorough criminal investigations will involve far more parties than are eventually charged with the crime in question. In most cases it is unfair and inappropriate for the news media to even report on the identity of such preliminary investigation subjects much less sensationalize thin supposition as was done by the Journal-Star.

Published March 22, 2007