Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The decision to pursue and publish the Megan's Law story

Case prepared by David Yarnold, Editor, San Jose Mercury News and Susan Goldberg, Executive Editor, San Jose Mercury News

In 2003, the Mercury News embarked on a project to expose and correct the flaws of Megan's Law in California. Under the federal Megan's Law, most states have made it easy for residents to get accurate, detailed information on high-risk sex offenders. Residents of Florida, New Jersey and 33 other states can find that kind of information online. But in California, it takes a trip to the police department. Even then, the information available is so general it is nearly useless. And, sometimes, it's wrong. Our investigation showed California has one of the nation's least informative, most inaccurate databases of registered sex offenders.

After months of reporting, we concluded that the public had the right to know the same kind of information that people in other states routinely are provided. In this series, we published the photographs, names and addresses of the 54 high-risk sex offenders in our region. They were men who had been convicted at least twice of such violent crimes as rape and child molestation. Authorities believe they are most likely to offend again.

We knew the decision would be controversial, but we believed the value in providing this information outweighed the potential harm in publishing it. And less than a week after publication, San Jose police and city officials launched one of the state's most detailed online Megan's Law databases, featuring profiles of the city's "high-risk'' offenders.

In Sacramento last month, the state Assembly responded by passing a bill designed to overhaul the law; further legislative action is pending.

Key questions:

  • Many of these high-risk sex offenders were abiding with the law, registering with local authorities and staying out of trouble. In some cases, their neighbors or employers had no idea they were high-risk sex offenders. Shouldn't the newspaper just let these men get on with their lives, without calling attention to their past?

  • What accountability was the newspaper willing to accept if these men lost their jobs—or worse—as a result of publishing their names?

  • Is it really the newspaper's role to serve this purpose in our community? Why haven't we published the name and photograph of every convicted rapist in our region?

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