Press freedom is important. It is a precious thing. In a republic it is a critical factor underpinning the interactions and interdependencies between those who govern and administer our island and the millions who live and work in it.

The news media plays a vital role in reporting on and accounting for the workings of government, banks and business, builders and developers, the police and courts, the civil and public services.

Newspapers, radio and TV news bulletins serve as reporters, investigators, profilers, agenda setters and occasionally platforms for those who want to confess.

We need an outlet for the whistleblowers, for those who believe they have been unfairly treated, neglected or discriminated against. We need those who will hold the powerful to account, who will accurately measure and adjudicate on how government spends our tax euros. The news media readily take this mantle.

We also need entertainment, comment, opinion and, yes, we frequently need it to be frivolous and speculative, but often we pay a high price for having these basic freedoms. Last week the price of press freedom was high.

Alongside pictures of a dancing squirrel in Poland, reports on the charging of George Michael for driving offences plus the day-to-day activities of Paris Hilton, Katy Perry and any member of Girls Aloud, we have had blanket coverage of the release of Larry Murphy from Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin.

The all too predictable coverage of Murphy's release has not just done a disservice to the role of news media in Ireland, it has infringed on the rights of many people unconnected to Murphy or his crime.

Relatives of Murphy have, in my opinion, been coerced by the scale of events to distance themselves from him repeatedly. They are private individuals whose personal lives and details were made public knowledge last week. Why? Who benefited from this and why did we need to know?

Murphy's victim has had to live with the daily, and at times last week hourly, repetition of the details of his crime. Was it really necessary to have these details described again and again? Does it make his crime any more serious?

Media students across the globe are taught the communication theories of moral panics, pack journalism, the event as news, the journalist as storyteller and the media as news originator. All were evident last week in Ireland.

Our news media did not just report on an event. They manipulated it, hyping and distorting it, culminating in over 200 people picketing a prisoner halfway house in Dublin based on unfounded, but news-media-created, suppositions.

What about the rights of the people who ran this centre, or of the residents there, now wondering after 40 years of privacy why the glare of publicity is accusing them of supporting Larry Murphy, a person who has had hours of news time and acres of print coverage devoted to telling us how evil he is?

There are serious questions to be asked about the Larry Murphy case – about the length of the sentence and about how sex offenders are reintegrated into society and whether this is actually possible or desirable. There has been some comment on this, but it has been lost in the torrent of imagined speculation about Larry Murphy's release.

In the days running up to his leaving prison, many news media outlets, without citing sources, reported that he could be in Europe, England, Dublin city or anywhere in Ireland. Yet not one newspaper reported that they just didn't know and were in fact making things up.

Take the example of his release from Arbour Hill: Murphy became a "sick rapist", a "cornered rat" and the "Beast of Baltinglass" in the Daily Mirror. In the Star he was a "sex beast", "arrogant", a "smug rapist", a "notorious beast". The Sun had "Monster Murphy"... "hiding like a coward" even though he was also "the most dangerous man in Ireland". In the Mail he was "belligerent and sneering" and "public enemy number 1".

Is he? Do we have a league table of criminality in Ireland? Or is it that we have fictional, fabricated news hype? Why did the news media resort last week to making up the news?

We were told he looked "fit and healthy" and "walked purposefully", or that he was "arrogant" and "strutting". The Irish Independent reported that "he remained unshakeable", while in the Examiner he strode "purposefully". In fact he walked out of the prison to a waiting taxi. Why can't we report just that?

After a week of news coverage reminiscent of the episode of The Simpsons in which an irate crowd with burning torches gathers at Homer's house, the scariest sight was that of the people massed in Dublin, at the prison and later in Coolock.

It was intolerable for the workers and residents of Priorswood House, and it was damaging for those caught up in the events out of either genuine concern or voyeurism.

Either way it was a bad week for the news media. We need to put more value on our press freedoms and think more clearly about how we exercise them.

Robbie Smyth is deputy head of the faculty of journalism and media communication, Griffith College Dublin