Johnston: Where did facts and fairness go?

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Tom Johnston was a character.

He was an award-winning meteorologist whose antics endeared him to viewers.

He was also a hothead whose temper got him into trouble with his former station in Florida, and earned him a minor record in 2010 for criminal mischief and trespassing.

He was a father. A brother. A son.

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And, after found dead from suicide in Auburn on April 6, he has been strongly implicated in a sexual assault that occurred in Newry on a weekend he was serving as emcee of Sunday River’s Springfest.

Reports implicating him are based on supposition and not police investigation.

The first, from WGAN pundits last Friday, drew a connection between the unnamed sexual assault suspect and a missing person’s report, based on a notation on Oxford County’s incident media summary report.

That notation read: “Deputies responded to Bridgton Hospital and met with a female reference to a sexual assault that occurred at a residence in Newry. The suspect fled the scene and was later reported as a missing person.”

WGAN said it determined Johnston was the only missing person reported during that same time period, drawing the conclusion that Johnston was the suspect. No confirmation from police.

Later, broadcaster NH1 in New Hampshire reported the same supposition.

Then, on Tuesday the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and NAMI Maine added weight to these reports by issuing a statement on the “Tom Johnston suicide and rape report investigation.”

In the shared statement, the advocacy groups noted that “suicide and sexual violence both result in serious trauma and for the two to coincide as they have in this case, the trauma is even more immediate and serious.”

The groups had not spoken with the victim or to police, but based their statement entirely on Twitter chatter and a FTVlive.com report, which a spokeswoman for MCASA acknowledged wasn’t “particularly reputable.”

While we have great sympathy for the victim and hope she is healing, the advocacy groups’ statement shocked our news staff for its audacity. And we don’t mean that in a positive way.

There has been a lot of chatter about Johnston, starting the day he was found dead, and we heard a lot of it in our newsroom. Since then, we have spent hours discussing the propriety of reporting what we had been told, including confidential information from people close to the investigation. Still, we held off.

Today, we felt it was important to share facts of the investigation that we have verified with named sources.

As professional journalists we stand on a sharp ethical edge, one that guides what we report and when we report it.

The longtime standard has been not to name someone implicated in a crime until charges have been filed, which is the point at which investigators have determined there is probable cause to warrant criminal charges. Naming a person before charges are filed is tricky because, often enough, investigations do not result in prosecution. When that happens, an investigation is closed and no details may be released, by state law.

The confidentiality of investigative records is crystal clear in Maine. In fact, it is a crime to release such information.

Once a charge has been lodged against a person, most — but not all — of those records become public as part of court files.

But, if a person’s name floats out before a charge is filed, there’s no pulling back that information. And the damage is permanent.

Remember Richard Jewell and the Olympic bombing in Atlanta? The man whose name became publicly and widely attached to the bombing was innocent — a hero, actually — and another man was later convicted.

So, the ethical and responsible thing to do is wait until charges are filed before trotting out a name, although there are exceptions when there is risk of public harm — such as the frantic search for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev following the Boston Marathon bombing.

In this local case, Johnston cannot and will not ever be charged with a crime of any kind. The dead cannot be prosecuted.

But, does that give us permission to ignore professional standards? It does not.

If anything, it forces us to uphold our standards. For Johnston. For his family. For the integrity of the investigation.

This isn’t about libel, because journalists are libel proof when reporting on the dead.

It’s about fairness. And facts.

Fundamental fairness and verifiable facts.

These are basic elements of credibility, and elements that distinguish rumor from truth.

Conjecture from authenticity.

Hearsay from news.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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