Longform

MURDERING THE TRUTH

As the centerpiece of a high-profile investigative series, the Arizona Republic published a story suggesting Arizona Boys Ranch employees had mistreated and later murdered a troubled black teenager. The story was wrong.

In compiling the story, two Republic reporters doctored quotes, failed to interview key witnesses and ignored contradictory information. When confronted with those journalistic failings, Republic editors had an odd response.

They backed the reporters. Then the newspaper savaged the Boys Ranch on its editorial page.

After publishing a string of stories on alleged wrongdoing at the Arizona Boys Ranch, the Arizona Republic delivered its coup de grce last August.

Under the mournful headline "Kid Without a Chance," two of the Republic's top reporters told a tragic story about a 17-year-old boy who drowned in a canal after running away from Boys Ranch employees.

Prominently displayed on the front page of a Sunday edition, the story strongly insinuated that Lorenzo Johnson, who was black, ran away from the Boys Ranch because he feared punishment at the hands of racist ranch workers. The privately run ranch is a rehabilitation facility for troubled youngsters, many of whom have committed serious crimes.

Near the end of the story, the reporters quoted the boy's mother as she raised the possibility that Johnson might have been murdered while in the custody of two Boys Ranch workers and a prospective employee. She called for the reopening of an investigation that concluded Johnson's death was accidental.

"I think they killed him, but why, I do not know," Minnie Dunwoody was quoted as saying by the state's largest newspaper, which has a Sunday circulation of more than 500,000.

The story had immediate impact, appearing to document abuse by Boys Ranch employees at a time when the facility's license to operate was already in jeopardy.

That impact, however, was based on false conclusions reached through unethical and sloppy journalistic practices. While preparing the story, Republic reporters omitted, twisted and, at times, manufactured information.

Then, when confronted with documentation of those journalistic deficiencies, Republic editors backed the reporters, and the newspaper harshly criticized the Boys Ranch on its editorial page.

The journalistic and ethical failings of the Lorenzo Johnson story are manifold:

The story raised the possibility that Johnson had been murdered, but offered no supporting evidence for Dunwoody's vague charge. The newspaper made no attempt to interview two of the three men present at the scene of the purported killing. The newspaper's reporters never bothered to interview the sheriff's detective who investigated Johnson's death. And they failed to review photographic evidence supporting the conclusion that the death was an accident.

To buttress claims of wrongdoing at the Boys Ranch, the Republic quoted from letters written by Johnson and a woman the teenager met just days before he died. In its story, however, the newspaper distorted the general thrust of those letters, focusing on passages that might be linked to other allegations of abuse at the Boys Ranch.

Key statements in the letters--statements indicating that Johnson had not been abused at the Boys Ranch--were omitted from the story.

Statements were excerpted from a crucial letter and strung together to make a continuous, misleading quote--a journalistic technique known as compression. It is a technique that is widely considered to be unethical.

Republic reporters helped to prepare a letter, which Johnson's mother signed, saying Dunwoody doubted that her son's death was an accident. Later, however, Dunwoody retracted her statements, saying the Republic had "lied to me." The newspaper never reported that retraction, nor the manner in which it obtained the letter.

The distortions and false implications in the Republic's story were not widely known until the Boys Ranch decided to conduct its own investigation into Johnson's death. The nonprofit facility hired a former U.S. district attorney for Arizona, A. Melvin McDonald, who assembled a team of former federal and state investigators. The team prepared a 182-page report on Johnson's death and the Republic's coverage of it. The report was delivered to Republic management last month.

"It is clear, beyond any doubt, that Lorenzo's death was not caused by criminal acts of others," McDonald concludes. "The three men who were slandered by the August 28th Arizona Republic story were heroes, not villains."

The Republic's reaction to that detailed investigation was, to say the least, unusual.

The newspaper allowed one of the journalists who wrote the original story on Johnson's death--a journalist accused of unethical conduct in McDonald's report--to write an article on that report's findings. The resulting article brushed lightly over those findings, when it was not brushing them aside entirely.

The newspaper followed two weeks later with a blistering editorial that lambasted the operation of the Boys Ranch. In the article on McDonald's investigation, Republic managing editor Pam Johnson defended the newspaper's reporting. "Mr. McDonald may contend there is something hidden between the lines, but what the story said accurately reflected the situation," Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was quoted as saying.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty