Thursday, September 25, 2003


The New York Times started it: It ran a story this week about Gov. Mitt Romney’s efforts to bring the death penalty to Massachusetts. What the paper didn’t say was why Romney wanted to do so.

The Boston Herald put the death penalty effort on its front the next day, and I found that, once again, there was no motivation given. So I did a Factiva search for every Herald article including the name “Romney” and phrase “death penalty.” I looked at all 59 and found only one in which Romney states his motivation.

To read Romney’s words, you would have to go back to May 29, 1994.

There was a single other article that explains his motivation: Spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom explained it far more recently, in the June 23 issue -- but that’s still a bit of a stretch, considering it’s late September.

(The Boston Globe, with 92 articles including “Romney” and “death penalty,” is far better: Unlike the Times or Herald, it explained Romney’s reasoning in the Sept. 24 article introducing his new push. Before that, Romney was quoted Oct. 30, 2002, explaining that capital punishment “has everything to do with deterrence. I think ... you have to make sure that you send a statement loud and clear, to terrorists, to cop killers, to people who brutally mutilate and kill children, these people should know that if we find them, and if we can prove that they are guilty, that they will be subject to the ultimate penalty. People who are intent on destroying human life, and destroying everything that is valuable that we treasure ... have to recognize that they will be forced to pay the highest price.” I didn’t keep on looking through the Globe articles; I get the sense these two recent mentions aren’t flukes.)

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure. I know the Herald has published literally dozens of articles that say Romney is in favor of the death penalty, without saying why, and I feel comfortable in guessing this is a problem that goes beyond this one newspaper.

It’s a problem because it limits analysis. Romney may believe in “an eye for an eye,” and some may consider that bloodthirsty and repellent -- but buy the idea that capital punishment is a deterrent to other criminals. Romney may believe it’s a deterrent, and some may disagree -- but feel victims and their families deserve justice, to the extent that a violent criminal deserves death.

Either way, when motivation isn’t explained, readers don’t get the opportunity to assess whether they agree with the reasoning behind a policy. Without knowing Romney believes the death penalty to be a deterrent to crime, why would anyone ask if it actually is?

Motivation counts. It’s reasonable to wonder, after dozens of articles, what motivates the Herald to discount that idea.

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