When the Justice Department exonerated Steven Hatfill in the 2001 anthrax attacks, the news was about to be swamped by the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Atlanta lawyer L. Lin Wood called the development the “whisper of innocence that could never drown out the shout of 'guilty.' ” New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt says that Times columnist Nicholas Kristof plans to write a column apologizing to Hatfill for any “extra scrutiny and upheaval the columns brought to him, and wrestling with the journalistic issues involved.” Hatfill sued Kristof and the Times, but the case was dismissed.
Hatfill's story poses uncomfortable journalistic questions that do not have easy answers. Kristof said that when the media interest is partly sensational – as in the cases of John and Patsy Ramsey, who were wrongly suspected in the murder of their daughter, and Gary Condit, the former congressman wrongly suspected of killing Chandra Levy – journalists should be “especially wary of harming the individuals who get caught up in prosecutorial interest.” The anthrax case involved an urgent issue of national security, and news organizations had to be more aggressive, he said. Wood believes the news media should report the name of a suspect only if authorities will go on the record or if an arrest is imminent. “They're real people,” Wood said of such suspects, “and their life as they've known it ceases to exist. What is said about them is devastating.”