Silent Witness flak tries to silence news media

By Ray Stern

The voice of the young girl on television, the screen showing only her socked feet, rivets the viewer to her story. The Phoenix 12-year-old had been attacked in broad daylight while walking to a friend's house, her pants pulled down by a brazen pervert who was subsequently scared off by the girl's screams.

PPD Sergeant Paul Penzone
If it had been up to the Phoenix Police Department, though, no one would have heard her tell the story.

Sergeant Paul Penzone, spokesman for the department's Silent Witness program, had asked the news media during a press conference Thursday to avoid contacting any victims of the attacker. He singled out Channel 3 news, which had already obtained footage of the girl on Thursday morning, asking the station to refrain from airing her story.

Channel 3 aired it anyway on its 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. news reports. Frustrated, Penzone fired off strongly worded press release to the media Friday morning, calling the airing a "poor decision" that may have jeopardized a future court case against the unknown suspect. He again begged other news outlets to stop trying to find and interview victims.

"To pursue this in order to 'enhance' a news story in this tragic circumstance would only be for selfish reasons and not for best interest of the community," Penzone wrote.

Penzone is a thoughtful guy who works closely with the media. He seemed uncomfortable when I called him to talk about this issue, and asked how it might have been handled it better.

As a reporter, naturally I'm a bit biased. I told him not to try to steer news coverage.

Sure, the news media--and especially TV news--has been guilty of sensationalizing stories, whatever the emotional cost to victims and other interviewees. It's easy to imagine a news crew going too far with this kind of thing.

But Penzone's argument doesn't wash. He says a victim might get too creative in repeating the story, might misstate something to the advantage of the suspect's defense lawyer. He says children are traumatized in interviews. Talking to the media might even expose a person to danger, if the suspect sees the report and reacts by hunting down the person interviewed.

All of those things may be true, hypothetically. But they don't seem to be true in this case.

Sybil Hoffman, assistant news director for Channel 3 (KTVK) News, says her reporter had interviewed the victim only after getting permission from the girl's mother, who stood by during the interview. The 12-year-old didn't seem traumatized--she wanted to get the word out. Her face wasn't shown, her name wasn't used.

"To get a first-hand account does have news value," Hoffman says. "We were responsible in the entire process."

Click here to see Channel 3's coverage of the attacks.

Police still don't know who the perv is, though he's tried to attack as many as nine children, ranging in age from 7 to 15. Here's a sketch of the suspect:

Hoffman says Penzone showed up at the station Friday morning after his fiery press release, saying he hoped there were no hard feelings.

Yet Penzone is sticking to his opinions--and hoped other news media would stick to the soft "agreement" not to seek out and interview other victims. Which, so far, they have.

But making such wimpy deals isn't benefitting anyone.