1 1. By Sue O Brien Westword, Denver s brash alternative weekly, gave it full front-page play: CU Coach Bill McCartney keeps the faith and gets a grandson fathered by his star quarterback. But University of Colorado quarterback Sal Aunese and McCartney s 20-year-old daughter, Kristyn, were not married. And the young Samoan football star was dying of cancer. Talk-radio telephones buzzed with outrage. The story was the topic of loud debate in every newsroom. But few Colorado journalists were writing. The university confirmed that Aunese was the father of McCartney s grandson on Aug. 30, the day the Westword story broke. But The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Boulder Camera and two of Denver s four commercial television stations maintained silence, refusing to chase a story they d all known about for months. The tone of the Westword story, which depended exclusively on unnamed sources, was ugly. Aunese came across as an uncaring lout, Kristyn as little more than a tramp. But the harshest treatment was of McCartney. They tried to make it a story by putting an angle on it that Bill McCartney, a very Christian-type fellow, can t control the team, or even his own daughter, said Rocky Mountain News Sports Editor Barry Forbis. That s a pretty weak peg. For Westword writer Bryan Abas, Kristyn s pregnancy proved his central contention: McCartney has lost the respect of his players, and some are retaliating in one of the most humiliating, intensely personal ways imaginable. Denver Post Managing Editor Gay Cook called that cheap-shot journalism. I don t think the thesis of the article was substantiated by the reporting, she said. And I think it came very close to a gross invasion of Kristyn McCartney s privacy. The mainstream media boycott of the story continued even after the 21 year-old Aunese died Sept. 23. Only the News, in Aunese s obituary, noted that he had left a 6-month-old son, Timothy. No last name. No further identification. But on Sept. 25, before 2,000 mourners at a campus memorial service, a somber Coach McCartney addressed his daughter and resolved a dilemma for worried editors who still hadn t decided how to cover the story. Kristy McCartney, you ve been a trooper. You could have had an abortion, gone away and had the baby somewhere else to avoid the shame, but you didn t.... You re going to raise that little guy and all of us are going to have an opportunity to watch him. The photo of Kristyn standing with Timothy by the casket was played prominently in all three dailies and on all TV newscasts. The News also included an excerpt from a littlenoticed June interview in which Aunese had proudly discussed his son with the sports editor of his hometown paper, the Oceanside, CA, Blade-Tribune. But Aunese consistently refused or ignored requests to talk with Denver reporters. He never explained his reasons. Except for Westword, Denver editors decided not to go with the story unless Aunese and the McCartneys were willing. McCartney opened the door at the memorial service. Until then, he didn t talk about it and we didn t write it, said Forbis. Few felt they needed to confirm what was widely accepted as truth. Most editors reservations revolved around issues of taste and privacy. For some, the clincher was that Aunese was dying. Others refused to violate Kristyn s privacy, rejecting the Abas argument that the daughter of a public figure is, per se, a public figure. In conversation, several criticized Westword for playing to racial stereotypes by emphasizing Kristyn s relationships with black and Polynesian players. Others objected to an implied double standard of sexual conduct for men and women students. All worried about how the community would react to a distasteful story. If I were maybe 20 to 25 years younger, I d say, Oh, my God, we ve got to do this story now, Barrie Hartman, executive editor of the Boulder Camera, said last month. But good sense for a paper of my size in a community like this says you put the brakes on it for a while. Denver Post Editor Chuck Green, who hadn t participated in daily news decisions on the story, criticized his colleagues for failing to aggressively pursue Westword s allegations that McCartney s religion has intruded into the CU locker room. At KMGH-TV, News Director Mike Youngren observed that a tendency to take the easy way out seems to prevail in Colorado newsgathering. It took Sports Illustrated to fully report the off- field problems of CU football players, he notes. Westword Editor Patricia Calhoun speculated that the boycott had much to do with the area s fondness for football. It remained for the state s most idiosyncratic daily to take the most independent path. Editor Clint Talbott of the Colorado Daily, which is based on the CU campus but has no formal ties to the university, decided Kristyn s pregnancy was a private matter. Even after McCartney s memorial service remarks, Talbott refused to join other newspapers in the rush to print the story. It didn t matter that it wasn t news, he wrote in an editorial on Oct. 6. It just mattered that the story was a good read, and the papers pounced on the first legitimate excuse to put it in print. McCartney says he really hadn t planned his memorial service remarks. But his daughter had been publicly attacked and deserved public validation. He apparently decided that the story would be handled right. The mainstream media had this story before that magazine, he said last month. Obviously it was a tasty story, one that would have certainly garnered headlines, and the fact that they left it alone spoke volumes to me.
2 2. by Tim Krohn Never before or since have five column inches on an inside page generated such fury from our readers. The story began routinely enough. A 25-year-old man from a nearby town was found hanging from a tree in his backyard. The Free Press (Mankato, MN) ran a short story about the death with few details, noting only that it was being investigated. Sheriff s deputies were unusually tight-lipped about the case. In the week following the initial story, rumor fed upon speculation until several bizarre murder theories had circulated. Interest in the death was heightened because the young man was a well-known teacher of the physically and mentally disabled. A local lecturer and volunteer, he was admired by many. A week after a neighbor had found the nude body, the sheriff s department and coroner released a ruling on the death: accidental, due to sexual asphyxia. Even among our well-read news staff, few knew much about sexual asphyxiation. The practice, also called autoerotic asphyxiation, involves attempting to reach a heightened sexual orgasm by cutting off the oxygen and blood supply to the head during masturbation. Not everyone who tries it dies, but accidental death often occurs when the person loses consciousness and falls forward, being strangled by the rope or belt tied to his neck. The question came immediately to mind: If we were somewhat shocked would our readers be at all prepared? The answer, we knew, was an unequivocal no. Editors, the reporter and the publisher met to discuss the options. The rumors were too widespread to even consider letting the incident pass without mention. Could we say the death was definitely not foul play and leave it at that? It would, of course, leave readers with the impression that it was a suicide a normally unsettling cause of death for family and friends to accept, but in this case a less embarrassing conclusion than the true circumstances. The argument to simply rule out foul play was buttressed by the fact that radio and television stations did not give the official cause of death in their reports immediately following the ruling. But other reporters and editors argued that the death involved a week-long sheriff s investigation and had gained wide public interest. A hazy article would not adequately answer all the questions. And what about the newspaper s role as an educator to others who may have thought about experimenting with the potentially deadly practice? Doc Sanford, the savvy, progressive coroner who ruled on the death, came to the newspaper office arguing for publication of full details. This is being done by a lot of people out there. It s dangerous and they should know it, he said. After some quick studying we learned that accidental death from the practice, is indeed, no fluke. According to an FBI study an estimated 500-1,000 people die yearly in the U.S. from sexual asphyxiation. The agency describes most victims as male adolescents or young adults who are happy and well-adjusted. Besides the deaths, many people are brain damaged by the practice. After learning of the frequency of the practice, another possibility occurred. Perhaps we could do a short story on the death coupled with a longer news-feature on the facts about sexual asphyxia: state and national statistics, an interview with Doc Sanford, etc. The problem with this option, we worried, was overplaying the story and being open to charges of sensationalizing a family s personal tragedy. After examining all the arguments, we went ahead with an article we hoped would fulfill our public record reporting obligations, warn others about a dangerous practice, and at the same time, not give undue attention to the story. A short, five-inch story on the bottom of page 15 gave the coroner s ruling of the death with a brief, clinical description of sexual asphyxia. We expected criticism. But no one was prepared for the onslaught of outrage. Telephone calls and letters to the editor continued for weeks. From the mother: One word -- accidental -- would have explained it all. [The story] didn t serve any good purpose, but only angered and hurt people. From a minister:... Your article, written from the very depth of the sewer, was totally uncalled for. Even many staff members families and friends thought the newspaper was far out of bounds. A couple of years later, we still are angrily confronted about that story. Would we have done the story the same way knowing the outcome? I don t think so. I think we would run a longer, not a shorter story. While that might seem like an invitation for even more criticism, I think it would actually have brought less. If we had spent time talking to local doctors, counselors, ministers and perhaps even the family, we could have presented an informative, yet sensitive article. Such a story would also have given us an opportunity to talk about the good things the victim had done. The sad affair leaves me with two firm conclusions: What we can justify as journalistically right doesn t necessarily make it right for our readers. And, who we write about is often much more important than what we write. Had the same story been about a down-and-out jail inmate (more frequently victims of sexual asphyxia) there would have been little outrage. The problem that most readers had with our story was they couldn t reconcile their feelings for a very caring person with the fact that he died in a fashion they couldn t easily comprehend. Still, I think the decision to print the cause of death was correct. A young person cannot leave the face of the earth without someone explaining it to his community. And a dangerous practice, no matter how unseemly to some, can most effectively be discussed, and perhaps, prevented by describing a local example.
3 3. By Harry J. Reed It had all the elements of which heroes are made. On a Saturday evening in August, 1982, a firefighter died in a furniture warehouse fire. Killed when a wall collapsed was Norman E. Creger, a 17-year veteran of the Jackson (MI) Fire Department. The Sunday Citizen Patriot devoted most of page one to the fire. The mayor ordered city flags to half-staff. An honor guard of firefighters flanked the casket until the funeral. Fire officials from throughout Michigan formed a three-mile procession following a pumper truck with Creger s bronze casket atop it. Creger s widow received the America flag covering his coffin. It was a hero s departure. And then. Forty-five days later, the newspaper revealed that Creger was legally drunk at the time of his death. Rumors of Creger s drinking were heard within hours of his death. He had been off-duty at the time of the fire, in a bar. When summoned, he finished his beer and drove to the blaze. Creger was one of four firemen playing hoses on the north side of the four-story building. Fire Capt. Leland Bowman saw the wall might fall and ordered them back. Witnesses said the other three firefighters sprinted to safety, but Creger turned and walked into a double-headed parking meter. The impact knocked him flat. Seconds later, the falling wall covered him. Creger died of massive chest injuries. A month after the fire, city officials received the autopsy report on Creger. Because it was a bombshell, they kept it secret for two weeks as they discussed legal ramifications. The report indicated Creger s blood alcohol level was 0.16 percent. In Michigan, a motorist with 0.10 percent is considered to be under the influence. The police report was inconclusive on whether Creger s drinking was a factor in his death. What made this an important news story for the Jackson community? The possibility that a fireman died in vain, fighting a fire he shouldn t have been allowed to work. That his drinking prior to the fire made it questionable as to whether he was fit for duty. That violation of a new fire department check-in procedure might have cost Creger s life. The day the autopsy was released, the consensus at the Citizen Patriot news meeting was to play the story on page one, with a single column headline, not as the lead story. It was the most interesting story of the day, but we didn t make it the lead story on page one because we knew it would be unpopular, and would draw criticism wherever we put it. Knowing our conservative community, we anticipated the cries of Sensationalism! Numerous complaints from the public followed publication of the autopsy story which revealed Creger s drinking. How can you speak ill of the dead, was the general complaint, especially a hero who died serving the public. Do you really expect firemen to show up if your newspaper catches fire? How crummy, anything to sell newspapers! You owe the Creger family an apology. In retrospect, I would not change our coverage of the fire. Perhaps handling the drinking/autopsy story differently might have prevented some of the criticism. We could have prepared the public for the drinking disclosure by a story saying an investigation was underway into Creger s death, and that he came to the fire from a bar. The number of complaints might also have been reduced if we had emphasized that it was the city s investigation which revealed he had been drinking. This might have made it clear that the drinking was not something the newspaper came up with on its own. No matter how we approached the autopsy story, some people would still have been angry that we had tarnished a hero. What good did it do? was often the question raised. They don t see a newspaper s function as journalists do. Newspapers are not in the business of making or breaking heroes, but reporting events as they actually happen.
4 4. by David Gross It began with a phone call. I was at the time the editor of The Jewish Week, a paper reporting news of special interest to the Jewish community. It was then, and still is, the largest-circulation Jewish-content newspaper in the world, with about 120,000 subscribers. I had known the caller for some time. Do you know, he said, that W.M. is a regular advertiser in a Nazi paper? Can you imagine the nerve of this guy he gives money with one hand to Jewish charities, and with the other he supports Nazis! I promised my caller to look into the story. W. M. ran a large mail-order business, selling all kinds of kitchen gadgets, household aids, gift items, and the like. I had seen some of his ads over the years the kind that catch your eye with bold, 96-point blocks of type, and then try to dazzle with hyperbolic claims. I phoned a friend at the Anti-Defamation League of B nai B rith. He confirmed that the paper in question, The Spotlight, published in Arlington, Virginia, was as racist, bigoted and pro-nazi as I remembered it to be. I asked him to glance at some recent issues, to see if W.M. s company was really a regular advertiser. I waited, and heard my friend turning pages. Full-page ads, the ADL man said. We never knew this was a Jewish-owned company, Now that we know Hold off, I asked him. I know this guy, I know his wife and kids his son and my son attend the same school. If there s a big story, in my paper or from you, it ll kill them. People will spit in their faces. Give me a few days, maybe I can work something out we ll all be happy with. Okay, he said finally. Keep me in the picture. At home that evening, I phoned W.M. who lives in the same town as I do. I came straight to the point would he explain how he, a respected member of the Jewish community, justified his full-page ads in a neo-nazi paper? I could almost hear his breathing intensify on the other end of the line. Listen, he said, this is business. It s a good paper for my business. If I don t advertise, one of my competitors will. You re not hearing me, I said. This is an anti-semitic rag, you re a Jew and What do you think I do with the profits? I give them to the United Jewish Appeal. Baloney! What kind of twisted thinking is that? Look, I put ads into hundreds of papers all over the country, I can t check out each and every one of them to see what they publish I m running a business. He had inadvertently given me an idea. You pull your ads, all of them, cancel right now, and I ll say that when you found out that this was a racist paper, you withdrew your ads immediately. Otherwise, I run the story straight, and people will learn that you give to Jewish charities with one hand, and back a Nazi sheet with the other. There was a long pause. I ll think it over. I ll call you in the morning. The phone went dead. Early the next morning his wife called. Her voice was teary. Please don t do this to us, she said. He ll cancel the ads, I ll see to it, but don t make him look so bad, I ll never be able to hold up my head in this community and my children will be ashamed. Please! W.M. phoned a few hours later. He had canceled the ads. He sounded angry and unrepentant. I ran the story as agreed, which said he d canceled his business advertising in The Spotlight after learning of the publication s racist philosophy. As a lifelong journalist committed to honest reporting, I have wondered more than once why I didn t tell my readers the true story. At the time, I attributed it to wanting to shield W.M. s family. But, in retrospect, I may have had another motive in a sense I was shielding the Jewish community. Let me explain: A Jewish newspaper is replete with bad news anti-semitic incidents; ongoing threats to Israel from terrorists; a decline in religious affiliation; inter-marriages and the subsequent reduction in the number of Jews. My readers, and people outside the Jewish community, did not need to know the shameful news that a respected Jewish leader had been driven by greed to advertise in a Nazi paper. If the ads ceased, I reasoned, that would be enough. To this day, I am not sure I did the right thing. Perhaps, if there had not been so much bad news for the Jewish community that particular week, I would have printed the straight story on W.M. I still live in the same town as W.M. and his wife; neither will speak to me which is not important. He is still in the same business, only now his ads do not support neo- Nazism.
5 5. by Mike Taibbi The assignment desk called at 7 a.m. A veteran cop from Norwood, a bedroom town south of Boston, had been found shot dead in his cruiser in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Line of duty, said the early reports. Press conference at police headquarters TBA. I had sources in Norwood. There was time for a few calls and I made them. A young detective who knew me hesitated for just a second, and then he spilled it. Two shots fired, the first wound superficial an abdomen shot. The second was the killer, straight to the heart. The gun, the dead cop s own snub-nosed.38, was on the floor of the car. Powder burns on his hands, windows rolled up tight, doors locked. No note but not murder, suicide. Call again when you hit town, the detective offered. It didn t occur to me on the ride that within the next few hours, and again two months later, I d be faced with a number of tough decisions. The first, to call the suicide a suicide, was a no-brainer. The deceased was a cop, not an anonymous, private citizen whose death by any means was of no consequence to anyone. Besides, the wrong story that the cop was murdered was already getting big radio play throughout the Boston area. A source at the medical examiner s office had confirmed the details of the suicide for me, and my thenemployer, WCVB-TV, would certainly run the true story at 6 o clock. I only spent a few minutes at the press conference by Police Chief James Curran. Frank Walsh, the chief said, was one of the town s best known and best liked officers, and while there were no suspects yet in the shooting, Walsh had been involved in a number of dangerous investigations at the time of his death. A follow-up call to my detective friend led me to another source and the next phase of the story. The dead officer was also a member of the town s housing authority and had just learned he was under investigation for alleged embezzlement of authority funds. In fact, the source said, auditors from the attorney general s office were due in town that very day to begin going over the books at the board s offices. Cameraman Len Spaulding joined me. We aimed a camera through a ground floor window, and there they were. I didn t wear a beeper in those days (April 1977) but when I got into Len s car the desk was calling me frantically on the radio. The detective, my initial source, needed to talk to me before I reported anything. What he had to say stopped me in my tracks. Frank Walsh was no career criminal. Clean sheet, terrific departmental record for nearly 30 years. What he was instead was a father of four whose family had been devastated by death, illness and mountainous financial problems in the months prior to his suicide. If the story gets out it s a suicide, the nervous detective told me, Walsh s family would be deprived of the $125,000 death benefit awarded when a cop dies on the line. Len and I sat in the car for an hour, talking through a half-dozen versions of a script before settling on one that seemed adequately sensitive and subdued. Len was the right cameraman to be working with that day: He hated the trumpets, oversimplification and sometimes brutal invasiveness of television news. I called the producer, told her the whole story, and told her it was solid. She said it would be the lead and agreed with us on how it should be played. None of us anticipated the violent response the story got. Even though the Boston Phoenix and later the mainstream press all eventually reported the correct story, we were first and we were TV, and TV is where the action is and also the reaction. When our crew cars passed through the town, they were vandalized. A colleague covering the funeral was assaulted. I received believable death threats. And the letters. There were scores of them, most of them spilling rage, but several recognizing that while I had a job to do I had also added pain and suffering to an already reeling family. Some included newspaper pictures of Walsh s children. Whether the campaign was organized or spontaneous, it was relentless. And two months later came decision number three. A source in state government told me that the state pension board had quietly awarded the death benefit despite the official finding that the beleaguered officer had died by his own hand. I didn t report it, or tell my superiors there was anything to report. I wasn t sure what management would have said about it but I knew how I felt. To do this last story would only hurt innocent people, Walsh s family, people who had already been hurt by the death and its aftermath. A reporter constantly faces decisions about how to use the information he gets. Sometimes the decision, the fair decision, is not to use the information at all. Maybe another news outlet would pick it up, I thought. And maybe, in that moment, I chose to behave not as a reporter but as a human being. Anyway, that s what I told myself, and how I ve chosen to remember the story. Nobody else, as it turned out, ever did report that the death benefit had been paid.
6 6. by Perry Catlin He killed himself on a Saturday, four days before the newspaper s deadline. By the time we d pasted up Wednesday night, we were grateful for the time. Todd, a 14-year-old freshman at Ipswich (Massachusetts) High School, shot himself at home one morning in March, I was editor of the Ipswich Chronicle at the time, a weekly newspaper covering the North Shore seacoast community. North Shore Weeklies, the parent company of the Ipswich Chronicle, had an unwritten policy about suicides: If the person who killed himself was a public official, or if he killed himself in public, we covered it and called it suicide. If we knew it was a suicide but the person was relatively unknown in the community and he did it privately, we wrote a straight obituary, leaving out cause of death. It was clear that we would report on Todd s death and call it suicide. But it was not clear how extensively we would cover the story or where it would run. When we began dealing with the story, the editor-inchief and I disagreed with the newspaper chain s publisher/ owner on how to cover it. Selma Williams, the editor-inchief, and I thought the coverage should be fairly low-key, but Bill Wasserman, always mindful of the competition, two daily papers, was worried the dailies would cover it extensively. Selma, Bill and I discussed the story from all angles. Todd did not shoot himself in public. But he was a high school student and the school was buzzing with the news. In addition, Ipswich High School observed a moment of silence in his memory. The story had become a public event. While we continued to argue about the story, one of the daily newspapers came out with a front-page lead story reporting the death. Ipswich High School student shoots himself, the headline blared in 48-point type. About an hour after that paper hit the street, I got a call from Dick Thompson, superintendent of Ipswich schools. He was very upset by the daily s headline and he wanted to know how we were planning to run the story. I said we hadn t made a firm decision; did he want to talk with our publisher? I pushed that huddle because I thought it would be helpful if Wasserman could hear Thompson s side. Thompson swayed Wasserman, who seemed now to lean toward calling Todd s death suicide but leaving out quotes about him from classmates and teachers. Wasserman decided to call a local psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Stone, who often worked with adolescents, and explained our predicament. Stone gave us new information. He said he was aware of a possible suicide pact, where other students had agreed to kill themselves if one did it. We now realized even more that we were carrying an enormous responsibility. Stone understood our needs and agreed that it would be irresponsible, and perhaps, even more upsetting to other unstable youngsters if we ignored the story. We thanked Stone and huddled again, this time coming up with a mutually agreeable solution. In the middle of page two, with a two-deck, 24-point headline, we ran a short, straightforward story telling what had happened. The other obituaries ran farther back in the paper. On the editorial page, we ran a lead editorial about an unrelated story. The second and third editorials were about teenage suicide. The first one carried the headline, Looking for answers in the wake of tragedy. It started, Suicide - chosen death - has shaken Ipswich this week.... What everyone faces after a suicide is a feeling of helplessness about the death that has occurred. But what becomes critically important is that we use our best resources to avert any additional tragedy. That editorial praised the high school administration for reaching out to other students who may feel despair. It continued in part, The school s example can be a model for the whole community. Counseling can help... The next editorial was called, Help is available. It was boxed in 4-point broken tape, encouraging readers to clip it. There, we listed resources for those who contemplate suicide, and we included names and phone numbers. It was one of the those stressful, wrenching times when you put in fifteen hours for six inches of copy. But the effort was well worth it. We didn t hear a single complaint from the community, the superintendent and the consulting psychologist even complimented our coverage. Most important, we believe we did the right thing.
7 7. by Robin Hughes, editor A story and photograph in The Daily Beacon, the University of Tennessee student newspaper, has prompted an apology from the UT Publications Board after the paper s editor declined to apologize. The apology, made in a large paid ad in the Beacon, followed charges that the story was racist and sexist and that the photo, showing accident victim Leslie Williams in the street, was insensitive. Williams later died from the injuries suffered when she was hit by a car while crossing the street. The driver was arrested on DUI charges. Friends of the victim were offended by the Beacon s description of Williams as a 20-year-old black wearing tight black pants and a black top. The story also quoted an eyewitness saying he had seen a chick... flying through the air. After the story and photo appeared, about 100 UT students staged a protest march. The demonstrators called for an apology from The Daily Beacon and for the resignation of student editor Clint Brewer. Brewer said he wouldn t resign, nor would he apologize, because he didn t do anything wrong. People construed the description of her clothing as sexist but it wasn t meant to be, Brewer said. When a pedestrian wearing dark clothing is jaywalking at night, it is relevant to the reconstruction of the accident scene. Brewer also defended the eyewitness account as establishing the validity of the witness because he could identify the victim as a woman. We had the eyewitness quote, why paraphrase? Brewer said. We didn t say chick, he said chick. The Daily Beacon ran editorials explaining the motives behind these descriptions and the use of the photograph. The photo was not to dehumanize the victim, the editorial said, but to humanize the tragedy. Another editorial deplored the problem of drunken driving and the careless street-crossing habits of students. Herb Howard, acting dean of the College of Communications and chair of the Publications Board, said that he s sure the Beacon staff was well-intentioned. Still, the board believed that an apology was warranted not for the coverage, but the effect of the coverage. The picture and some of the words used in the article tended to be offensive and just added to the grief that the family and friends of this young woman were suffering, Howard said.
8 8. by Mary Johnson Physicist Stephen Hawking is confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner in his own body, began a February 8, 1988, Time magazine piece on the world s leading theoretical scientist. If Hawking were black, any mawkish reference to race in a lead would bring outraged charges from civil rights groups. But reporters know better than to call attention to race - or gender. Yet despite gains in rights for disabled people, the press continues to sensationalize when doing stories in which a disability is involved to the exclusion of real news. Features on courageous individuals surmounting handicaps - we call them in-spite-of stories - greatly outnumber disability issues reporting. It s not just the approach to disability that s unethical. The copy s awful, too. Reporters flaunt demeaning and inaccurate cliches; afflicted and victim are routine. Reporters and editors like the impact; they defend it as powerful writing. But it makes most disabled people today cringe. Journalists, they say, have no more right to turn them into objects of pity with such phrases as virtual prisoner in his own body than they have to turn women into sex objects. Sometimes, of course, the disability is the story. Wheelchair athletes push cross-country to raise funds for rehabilitation groups. Charities approach reporters with stories about clients made good. A recent Canadian study suggests the soppiest stories were hawked to the press by groups serving disabled people! What s an editor to do? Practice good journalism. Is there really a story in the event that merits reporting? Or is it merely a tug at the heartstrings? If it does deserve coverage, what s the issue, the angle that can open up the story rather than the same old tired in-spite-of approach? So what s wrong with an occasional tug at the heartstrings? There s been too much of it. Journalists repeatedly exploit what they see as the interesting angle - the disability. The super-crip approach has become the staple, comparable to the credit-to-the-race angle once epidemic in stories involving black people. California Angels pitcher Jim Abbott has felt the frustration ever since CBS News Charles Osgood, back in 1987, refused to allow him to be a regular pitcher, over Abbott s on-air protests. Press focus on Abbott s lack of a right hand has continued. Abbott has put it this way. It seems weird to me sometimes that I m a first-round pick and yet... since I turned professional the only thing anyone wants to talk about is playing with one hand. Reporters know it s wrong to interject their feelings into a news story. Yet the in-spite-of story - like use of afflicted or courageous (even when the disabled person is doing the most ordinary of things like raising a family or going to school) - comes from reporters attitudes and preordained angles. Where are the reporters who are listening to disabled people rather than using them merely to shore up their own beliefs about what it s like to be disabled? Where are the reporters interested in allegations of abuse by welfare and rehabilitation agencies or stories on the impact the Fair Housing Amendments Act will have on the lives of disabled residents? Disability rights is not a heartwarming feature story and disabled individuals should not be used for inspirational sagas. If they re newsmakers, they should be covered like anyone else - the disability noted matterof-factly only when its relevant to the story. If they re not newsmakers, why are they being covered? Because their lives are unusual? If so, we should ask why, looking for the real story behind the unusual. Typically, it s lack of opportunity, barriers, or discrimination. Those are stories. And they should be investigated and reported as they are for any other minority.
9 9. By Brian Ojanpa It s a plea that s hard to refuse. The person on the phone is telling you of a local family saddled with huge medical bills and looming tragedy. The parents are unemployed, there s no insurance, and their 4-year-old daughter is stricken with a rare form of cancer. A fund drive is being planned. We were wondering if you could do a story, the caller says. On its face, the story doesn t appear to pose a problem. It has drama, tension, human interest - all the requisites for a compelling feature and heart-rending pictures. You interview the family, run the story, and go on to other things. Then the phone rings again. A family with a similar plight has the same request. At this point, news judgment, fairness, and ethics can collide. Do you agree to do a similar story - again - knowing you may be opening the floodgates for other afflicted parties? Do you fudge on a decision by telling the caller you ll pass this information on to the appropriate editor? More bluntly, do you say yes to one stricken family and no to another? Should you? Providing coverage of individuals with fatal or potentially fatal diseases poses some sticky questions. The stories, while they can be journalistically justified, also cast the media in the role of private fund-raiser - a role many editors and reporters find uncomfortable. More importantly, these stories cast us in a God-playing role because we, in effect, decide who gets to benefit from the public pocketbook. A case in point: Last year, we ran a large feature and photo on a 1-year-old boy needing a kidney transplant. His uninsured family s medical expenses had topped $100,000. The community took up the cause. A transplant fund was started. A local supermarket provided free breakfasts in exchange for donations. A woman donated her Tupperware party proceeds. Eight-thousand balloons were launched, each bearing a donor s name. Of course, this was all wonderful. What was not so wonderful was another family calling a couple months later, chiding us for the unfair coverage (we ran a news brief) given their cancer-stricken child. What happened? We had simply slipped into the journalist s we-just-did-that-kind-of-story mentality and given the second family s story a passing nod. OK, so life is unfair. Trouble is, that s not supposed to apply to the media. The fallout from the second family prodded us to assess our treatment of such stories. We toyed with giving uniform play to everyone. That is, all stories falling into the grave illness/fund drive category would be given similar space and placement in the newspaper. But that suggestion was quickly dismissed. Because each case is different, with some more compelling than others, it would be wrong to don blinders and give every story six inches on an inside page or, conversely, 20 inches and a photo on page one. It was also suggested that our coverage be determined by an illness severity, with terminal or potentially terminal cases rating full feature coverage and non-terminal illnesses accorded lesser play. Again, that suggestion was ruled out for the same reasons stated above. Ultimately, we decided to accommodate, with at least a news brief, anyone who requested coverage. As a community newspaper we believe we can, and should, serve the reader in a literal sense, or at least more so than metropolitan media. When we get one of these phone calls, we find it helpful to apply the personal litmus test: If this were happening to our family, what reasonable expectations would we have of our community s newspaper? The key word here is reasonable. This gives us a working, albeit subjective, guideline in deciding upon the degree of coverage. This is important because, as stated earlier, all such requests get their day in print. Vetoing coverage is not an option. Ultimately, though, this type of story jumps through the same set of hoops (reader interest, timeliness, etc.) as other feature stories. But an additional test - comparable worth, if you will - separates it from the general feature genre. We try to determine a story s merit by comparing it with similar terminal illness stories we ve done: Does this story break new ground? Is it more or less compelling than previous stories? Can it be beefed up with any hard news, say, input from researchers on recent treatment breakthroughs? Answering these questions allows us to be professionally equitable in our coverage while also providing specific reasons for our amount of coverage when we field reader inquiries. Simply put, it allows us to cull the herd. All these stories are worthy; the guidelines help us determine what is newsworthy. Our guidelines seems to be working well. At the least, reporters and editors are being spared the agony of making seat-of-the-pants decisions on these stories. At most, they ve made the duty of playing God something we can live with.
10 by Mary Beausoleil 10. If the subject of our story had said she was seduced and betrayed, instead of misquoted, she would have been right. On Jan. 3, 1984, the Valley News in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, published a story about the first baby of 1984 born in the area. A staple of community journalism, it began as most such stories do: with a rosy account of the facts surrounding the birth as told by the mother during an interview in her hospital bed. Then, about six inches into the story, it said: Tammy was looking forward to taking Daniel home to meet Steven today. Steven was one of the reasons she decided to get pregnant, even though she s single. Steven needs a younger brother, Tammy said yesterday. He s so hyper. And I figured I don t have anything else to do. I m not married and I don t work and I love kids, so why not have a second baby? Tammy has no current man in her life. She lives upstairs from her parents, receives welfare checks and wouldn t change the situation for anything. I like being a single mother. You learn to do more for yourself, because you can t count on other people to do things for you. John Fensterwald, the local news editor at the time, was surprised at Tammy s candor. The reporter, Sallie Graziano, assured him that Tammy was pleased to be so featured. The story was edited and given a headline ( New Year s Baby Gives Mom Happy Start ). As assistant local news editor, I gave it a quick second reading. We had given the story fairly routine treatment. Our readers did not, however. Within a few days, letters to the editor began to arrive. Angry letters. For the next four months, we published letters about this story nearly every week. Most letter writers saw the girl as too comfortable in her sense of entitlement; they cited her as proof of what they had long suspected. This letter was typical: I never thought I would see the day when someone would admit in black and white, on the front page of a newspaper, that they loved sitting home having babies and not working while the welfare check comes rolling in. We all know many people do it. I just hadn t seen anyone have the gall to admit it in print before. Within a few weeks, the conservative radio commentator Paul Harvey, as outraged as our letter writers, broadcast Tammy s story nationwide. Soon afterward, Tammy, as well as some of her relatives, contacted the newsroom. Her life had become a living hell, and she was afraid to leave her apartment because of the abuse she encountered on the street. She wanted a retraction, she said, because we had misquoted her. Tammy lashed out at us in the only way she knew: by contesting the facts. She had probably never thought to say we had betrayed her implicit trust a charge we could not have dismissed so easily. One or two letter writers criticized the newspaper, not the mother:... my initial reaction was not one of disgust with the baby s mother, but with your staff s lack of moral consciousness. You took advantage of someone s frankness and purposefully put into print an article that you must have known would only humiliate her in the end... Take out purposefully, and substitute should for must and that writer was on target. By this time, the story had become the focus of an ongoing newsroom debate. Some editors argued that the story s accuracy was enough to warrant publication and that it represented a viewpoint readers were interested in and entitled to read. Others said we should have omitted all the material about welfare, or that the reporter should have given her a sort of Miranda warning about what she was saying. Obviously, it was too late for that. We finally decided that, at the least, our story s sprightly tone could have made the mother sound too cavalier. A different reporter tried to contact Tammy to offer to write about how the story had affected her. That would give her a chance to describe any plan she might have (or might invent, if she didn t already have one) for a more productive life than the one implied in our story. But Tammy never answered the reporter s messages, and we never heard from her again. The reporter in this case intended no seduction and betrayal. She didn t approach Tammy the way reporters sometimes approach hardened media manipulators, hoping to get them to drop their guard. Tammy didn t have to let her guard down. It wasn t up. No, here the danger lay in this combination: a naive interviewee, susceptible to the flattery implicit in the undivided attention of a friendly interviewer; a seasoned reporter, for whom showing interest is a professional demeanor implying no special sympathy; and editors who did not anticipate the public outrage that was so hurtful to Tammy. Would we have published the story anyway, if we had foreseen the reaction? Perhaps, but I doubt it. We often assume that people who become story subjects by accident are as sophisticated about the press as cagey public officials. Usually they aren t. They trust us to keep them from hurting themselves, and we shouldn t betray that trust.
11 11. by David Green Ask any sports junkie and you ll probably get agreement. University of Kentucky basketball fans are among the most fanatical in college sports. So reporters at the Lexington Herald-Leader knew they were onto an extremely hot story when a former UK player told them that a group of fans called sugar daddies were plying players with cash and other gifts in violation of NCAA rules. There was only one problem. All the reporters had were handwritten notes. They found out that wouldn t be enough when they contacted the player again and he back-tracked. It wasn t really surprising. While many Kentuckians had suspected that the Wildcats success was built on broken NCAA rules, it was an entirely different matter to put that in print for all the world and NCAA investigators to see. So Mike York and Jeff Marx, the reporters who were assigned to do some hard digging on the UK team, began strategizing with me, as projects editor, and the paper s editor, John Carroll. Jeff and Mike said they believed players would likely come under enormous pressure to recant once they were quoted in the newspaper as admitting to improprieties. To counter back-tracking, they wanted to tape-record all interviews. And they asked editorial permission to do so without informing interviewees. All journalists have encountered people who are inhibited by being taped, especially when they re saying anything controversial, and our reporters were concerned that sources wouldn t be sufficiently forthcoming if they knew a recorder was running. But is it legal to tape people without their consent? We checked and found that the answer is yes. There is no federal law to bar anyone from taping their own phone calls without informing the other party, as long as there s no intention to violate anyone s legal rights. Nor is it illegal in most states, including Kentucky. But that still left us with another concern. Secret taping often comes across as sneaky. We didn t want to get a reputation in the community for being tricky and find ourselves with dried-up sources and mistrustful readers. A few weeks earlier, a Herald-Leader reporter had gotten tripped up while using a recorder concealed in his satchel. The man he was interviewing suddenly asked if he was being taped and the reporter was so panicked that he denied it. That incident had prompted Carroll to advise the staff in writing to be up front with all sources and generally not to tape interviews without people s knowledge. But the basketball story presented some unusual problems. We didn t want to be faced later with a flood of lawsuits from players who came under pressure to recant. And tapes would protect us by providing indisputable evidence of what had been said. Would this be breaking faith with our sources? No. The key point was that people would know they were talking to us on the record and were expecting to be quoted. Tapes are merely a more complete form of notes. So Carroll decided to make an exception to his guidelines and allow interviews phoners only to be taped without informing the other party. However, if any source asked whether he or she was being taped, the reporters would have to tell the truth. Mike and Jeff started working the phones. Then, during the writing process, we discovered some added benefits of taping. We had a much richer than usual selection of quotes and the tapes enabled perfectly accurate transcriptions. To backstop the reporters, I double-checked accuracy and context by listening to every tape on which a player made an allegation of wrongdoing that we intended to publish. The reporters eventually interviewed 33 former UK players. All but two said they knew of rules violations when they were playing. And 26 admitied that they had personally participated. Every player quoted was on tape and, with a couple of minor exceptions, all went on the record. The resulting articles, which won us a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, produced an explosive reaction in Kentucky from people who believed we had betrayed the program. We received hundreds of angry phone calls and letters, a bomb threat to our building, shots fired through our press room windows and 400 subscription cancellations. A poll revealed that fully half of our readers believed we shouldn t have published the stories. Ironically, in the uproar, little was mentioned about the fact that we had taped people without their knowledge. Jeff and Mike s prediction at the outset came true when players began denying to other media outlets that they ever told us about breaking the rules. We simply responded by saying that we had cassettes sitting in a bank vault to prove us right. Although we did have the unpleasant experience of being sued by one person over a small portion of the series, it s clear that without the tapes we might have faced that many times over. And the benefits of taping did not go unnoticed by the rest of our staff. If you walk through the Herald-Leader newsroom today, you ll see a phone-taping rig on most reporters desks. But you won t hear many sources being told that their interviews are being recorded.
12 by Tim Mullaney 12. Hello, Tim, said the PR executive from NVR L.P. Your story has had a profound impact on our company. They don t say that when they re happy. NVR is one of the biggest home-building companies in the country and certainly one of the most troubled. My April 22 story for The Baltimore Sun didn t say NVR had committed any crimes or even say it was going broke. It did say that NVR had told suppliers it would slow down its bill payments because of slow housing sales, and predict that NVR s dividend was history. But NVR s Doug Poretz had more on his mind than the fact that his company s partnership units (or stock) fell 40 percent in value the week after my story ran. Poretz s complaint was about anonymous sources. I had used them freely without giving it much thought, and my editors hadn t flagged me on it either. They knew the level of sources I was dealing with and trusted my abilities as a reporter. In my story, an unidentified investment banker said a cyclical company like NVR was a prime candidate for a failed LBO. Sources identified only as competitors supplied the tidbit about payments to suppliers (one even had a copy of the letter) and characterized NVR s marketing ploys as desperation measures to cover its huge debt payments. With NVR involved in tough negotiations to extend a critical $250 million credit line and suffering from an already-falling stock price, NVR felt sideswiped by the publicity. Most times, I accept the usual rationale for using anonymous sources. The occasional insight from someone who doesn t want his or her name in the paper can add much more than the absence of the name subtracts. The anonymous source is often the only way to get the story; other times, the anonymous source simply makes the best points. Poretz wasn t disputing any of that; his point was that this situation was different. NVR, which employs about 2,500 people, was at a critical turning point. We both knew the company could be on the line. Customer confidence was essential for the company to survive the soft real estate cycle; bank and investor confidence was equally critical as NVR tried to fix its finances. Considering the situation, Doug said NVR deserved better it deserved that I be more skeptical of the motives of the people I was talking to, and that I explain the identities and motives of my sources fully to my readers. Competitors knew NVR was having trouble, so Poretz thought they would be even more eager than usual to dump on NVR. Poretz had a point. While I trusted my sources, one or two had been notably more willing to criticize NVR than they had in the past. Along with the obvious problems of quoting competitors, the analysts had clients who either had already lost money investing in NVR or clients who could be short selling the units. Selling short is a risky investment that bets the company s value will fall, and short sellers are well-known for leaking their views to the press in hopes of helping their investments. All of this was still in my mind when events forced me to confront NVR s future in a story published late in July. Since April, Standard & Poor s had downgraded NVR s bonds, an NVR subsidiary had missed debt payments, and NVR had said it would post a first-ever quarterly loss. It was time to question openly whether NVR would go broke. The easy thing to do would have been to call the competitors again. They certainly think NVR might collapse. My editors wouldn t have had a major problem with using more anonymous sources. As the Sun s assistant business editor Michael Pollick later told me, There s no embargo on unnamed sources. The reader has a right to know what axe the source has to grind... (In the first story) you helped the reader by letting him know the sources were competitors. But even though no one was making me change my methods, I wanted to play things safer the second time. When you are going to come out and say a company will either go broke or dramatically restructure itself to avoid going broke, it s only right to have all your cards showing. That s what I did. Using on-the-record sources and documents, I showed that NVR is in terrible shape and that every way out of their situation is fraught with obstacles. They aren t broke yet as I write this, but they are basically at the mercy of their banks. I passed up a lot of juicy stuff for the second story; my old sources had fresh tales. But I d made the decision that stories with special consequences such as the possible loss of 2500 jobs demand especially careful handling. If NVR had committed a crime, I would have done whatever was necessary to get at the truth. But this wasn t Watergate, NVR had just screwed up. There wasn t enough there to justify gray-area reporting tactics. Steering away from anonymous sources doesn t mean writing a soft story. It does mean you have to work a little harder to get the truth. But in NVR s kind of situation, the newsmaker has the right to expect you to do it.
13 by Robert M. Hitt III 13. A teenager walks into an elementary school and randomly fires a pistol, killing two children and wounding nine other people. It is called the worst school shooting in history, and draws national attention. The teenager s thoughts are of intense public interest. You are given the number of a telephone in the locked ward of the mental hospital where the suspect is being kept until doctors form an opinion of his competency to stand trial. Do you call the suspect? Do you report what he says? A reporter for The State, Columbia, S.C., did telephone that suspect and The State did publish some of his comments. The suspect, James Wilson, a 19-year-old high school dropout, has pleaded guilty but mentally ill and has been sentenced to death in South Carolina s electric chair for those shootings on September 26, With a number provided by Wilson s grandmother - who said he was lucid - and at her suggestion, the reporter had two conversations with Wilson. The result was a page 1 story headlined Shootings like a dream. In that story, Wilson admitted to the shootings and said he felt real bad about what happened. He also talked about a People magazine article on shootings at an elementary school in Winnetka, IL, and a book about Wayne Gacy s killings, which he had just read. Wilson had torn the article from People and I read it every day. I had it for a few months, he said, adding that he could understand that killer. I think I may have copied her in a way. He talked, too, about his childhood - how he had felt neglected, how he had been abused and ridiculed by schoolmates and his father. He said he had thought a lot before taking his grandfather s pistol, buying cartridges and driving to the school. The State published those comments, but not without forethought and caution. Before telephoning Wilson, the reporter and an editor discussed the lack of taping equipment and of how they would verify the identity of who was reached on the telephone. A man answered the telephone and summoned Wilson by hollering his name. A youth with strong country drawl came to the phone. The reporter identified himself and Wilson responded Yes, sir, when asked if he would like to talk about the shootings. Wilson s identity was verified by answers to several questions, including his birth date, and the location of a particular magazine in his home. Questions were asked to determine his mental state and ability to understand that the newspaper was seeking his opinions for publication. He was asked about his surroundings and how he felt he was being treated. Questions were repeated two or three times to compare answers. In a second interview, Wilson was asked to clarify ambiguous or incomplete answers. Wilson said he was on no medication at the hospital other than a pill to help him sleep at night. The interviews occurred between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Three or four of us read the transcriptions of the telephone conversations with Wilson, and our lawyer was involved in our deliberations. My greatest concern was whether Wilson was lucid, that whatever he had to say was newsworthy. After that call, I was convinced that Wilson knew exactly what he was doing. Our primary concern was getting the information. In deciding whether to publish, I was compelled by some of the things Wilson had said, where he basically said why he had gone on that rampage. The State published Wilson s comments the next day. Advocacy groups and lawyers accused the newspaper of being sensationalistic, taking advantage of a mentally ill person and denying the suspect benefit of counsel. The shootings were a sensational event. But the fact that we could offer the reader some insight into the thinking of someone who would commit such a crime was compelling reason to publish. The criticism that Wilson was mentally ill and we were taking advantage of him is off base. He was extremely lucid and artful and cagey during the interviews with us. There is no question that Jamie Wilson is crazy in the conversational sense. Before the shootings, he had a long history of psychiatric treatment in a variety of mental health facilities but had always been released. His family had tried to have him judged mentally ill, but he had been judged sane repeatedly. The criticism that as a newspaper we have a responsibility to aid a defendant in getting a fair trial is preposterous. A complex system of courts protects and defends suspects and the public. Our role is to provide information that the public can use in the evolution of public policy, which includes operation of the courts. We published Jamie Wilson s story because it allowed the public to hear the suspect talk about his state of mind. The story satisfied the question of why, which is seldom answered in cases like this. Would we handle the Wilson story in the same way, given a second chance? Yes. Would we call another suspect at a state mental hospital? Maybe, depending on circumstances. In the Wilson story, we helped the public better understand a tragedy and the weaknesses in a mental health system. We would need equally compelling reasons to publish any information gained by another call to a state hospital.
14 by William McCann 14. When my wife, Susan, confided that she wanted to run for the Austin City Council this spring, I didn t know whether to cheer her on or chew her out. It took me about a minute to decide to cheer, even though I had a feeling that my employer, the Austin American-Statesman, was not going to take it well. Susan had been active in community issues long before I met her in 1987 and married her a year later. As a City Hall reporter in 1987 and 1988, I had to stay away from a few issues in which she was involved. It had been easy to avoid conflicts because fellow reporters readily took on those stories. So I figured we could do the same thing if she were elected, especially since I had been a business writer at the paper for the past year and was not covering City Hall news. I felt I had no right to restrict Susan because of my job. After all, journalists with mates in other professions were facing similar situations without apparent repercussions. One local reporter, for example, has had to stay away from covering the University of Texas because his wife is on the school s executive staff. Another reporter s spouse is a public relations official for a major high-tech firm. The husband of American-Statesman Editor Maggie Balough has worked in local political campaigns and formerly was employed by the city of Austin. Even our publisher Roger Kintzel has seen nothing wrong with his dual role as publisher and as 1990 chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. When Susan formally announced, my supervisor, Michele Kay, the business editor, said she was worried about my status at the paper if Susan got elected. I said I thought we could avoid any conflicts, but if I saw a problem coming, I would inform her immediately. The election campaign lasted five weeks with nightly forums, debates and precinct walks. I tried to stay out of the way, except to offer occasional advice, usually on little things like how to get her point across better at public meetings, and to chauffeur Susan around after she broke her toe. On May 5, with only 15 percent of Austin s voters going to the polls, Susan got the second highest number of votes in her race. This put Susan in a runoff. At this point, Michele Kay informed me that Managing Editor David Lowery had voiced concern about my continuing as a business writer. I asked for a meeting with Kay, Lowery and Balough. Lowery said he was worried about the perception of a conflict because the council is often involved in business issues. Keeping me out of a potential conflict would put undue pressure on Kay to juggle staff reporters, he said. I understood his concerns and I believe he was genuinely trying to do what was best for the paper. But, we had avoided problems in the past and I felt we would continue to do so. There were plenty of stories to keep me busy and away from the council, I said. Surely Balough would understand, I thought. I covered her husband when he was an assistant city attorney and later when, as a private attorney, he was hired by the city to represent Austin. At the time she was assistant managing editor. Balough asked a question about my writing stories about local businesses. I took it to mean that she was questioning whether there were possible conflicts if I wrote about a business that may give Susan a political contribution. I acknowledged there could be a problem, but I felt any conflicts could be avoided. For one thing, most of her contributions were coming from friends and relatives. Also, records must be kept of campaign contributors and I figured I could check the list. I did not mention Balough s husband, but I did bring up Kintzel. Balough made it clear it was not a subject she wanted to discuss. Kintzel s chamber connection had long been a sore point at the newspaper and some local weekly publications hammered regularly at Kintzel about it. Kintzel had strongly defended his position at the chamber, saying he had nothing to do directly with the paper s editorial content. Lowery made it clear that I had to leave the business desk. But what to do with me? I offered to take paid or unpaid leave until the campaign was over. Balough offered to move me to the lifestyle desk to write how-to features. I asked about an existing opening at the Capitol bureau covering state news. But Balough said the opening was not a priority. She left me to choose between features or vacation. The more I thought about the features job, the madder I got. Features were OK, but I had been a hard news reporter for over 20 years. I decided to take vacation and volunteer for Susan s campaign. While away from work, I made up my mind to quit the newspaper whatever the election outcome. I was upset by what I believed was a double standard, one for me and another for company executives. When the votes were counted, Susan was defeated. Her one regret, Susan said, was that she was responsible for me leaving my job. I held no such regrets. In eight years with the newspaper, I had developed a good reputation in the community and among my peers. Neither my ethics nor my integrity had ever been questioned. I believe my record should have been taken into account. Journalists often face situations where they must be trusted to do the right thing. With the increase in households with two professionals, editors and publishers are going to have to place a lot of trust in their employees. And, more importantly, editors and publishers must be in a position to set the highest standards themselves.
15 by Jim Dir 15. In the inaugural issue this January of the Bullhead City (AZ) Bee, we stated in an editorial what readers could expect: There would be no sacred cows, no special favors for our subscribers, advertisers or friends. It was pretty heady stuff for a new weekly operating out of a 1,000 square feet office on a shoestring budget. And within weeks, our editorial principles would be pitted against harsh financial reality. The lead story in our April 12 edition told how incorrect information led to a firm owned by Don Laughlin getting a municipal bus contract. Don Laughlin is a multi-millionaire and namesake of Laughlin, Nevada, the gaming community directly across the Colorado River from Bullhead City. The business magnate s many interests include the Riverside Resort and Casino, the Bee s largest advertiser. The day our paper hit the streets, we received a call from the Riverside Resort s marketing department our advertising contract was cancelled. No reason was offered. Another call minutes later informed us that this cancellation also affected advertising from two Arizona businesses owned by Don Laughlin, a resort/restaurant and the Bullhead/Laughlin airport. Before the week ended, we were told our news racks had been pulled at these two sites, that our newspapers sold inside the Riverside Resort were no longer welcome, and that the work of a featured columnist, who also worked for Laughlin, would no longer appear in our newspaper. Past experience at other Bullhead City publications had taught us that some major advertisers, including the Riverside Resort, felt they could control editorial content by virtue of the size of their accounts. In my previous editor s job, the Riverside Resort cancelled advertising on at least five occasions in as many years and its manager sought to have reporters fired for stories he didn t like. The Bee s publisher Thom McGraham had faced similar squeeze plays. The desire to be free from advertisers whims, to be able to do any story we wanted, had been among the reasons we d started the newspaper. In meetings that sometimes included our small staff, we considered our options: We could apologize to the Riverside, thus possibly cutting a minimum $5,000 per month advertising loss. A second option was to simply ignore the Riverside s actions, in hopes that after a cooling off period, they would come back to us. But, the majority decision was to write an editorial, letting the community know what had happened. Reaching this solution was not as simple as saying, We have these options, let s take a vote and pick the best one. First, the publisher and editor are not merely employees, we are co-owners of the Bee and have to look out for its financial future. Painful as it was to admit, the Riverside account actually could keep our business solvent. But if we did back off from the casino, if we abandoned our journalistic standards, our highly-principled staff would likely take a walk. Reporters George Ziemann and Susan Alfred were angry to the point where they were willing to place their jobs on the line. Knowing that it could spell financial disaster, we published an editorial: The truth, we remind, is not for sale. It restated the Bee s editorial independence and called the Riverside to task for trying to control the news. Staff members, some of whom had seen Riverside s tactics before, lobbied to get their thoughts included. We had to be cautious to act with our heads, not our hearts. The completed editorial read, in part: The ads of a regular advertiser, Don Laughlin s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino, which have been with us since our first issue, do not appear in the Bee this week. We knew it would happen, we just didn t know when. Media manipulation certain advertisers squelching unfavorable stories by pulling their ads or by threatening to do so has been a Bullhead City staple for years. To our knowledge as long-time media personnel in this town, not once has any member of the media used its voice to speak out against the tactics used to color the truth with a U.S. mint shade of green. Until now. The Riverside Casino manager s response a begrudging acknowledgment that the cancellation of the ads related to the story was included in the editorial. Reader reaction to the editorial was resoundingly supportive. One reader wondered why the ivory towers from across the river hadn t been dismantled long ago. This initial reaction from the community prompted a sigh of relief from the Bee, but it didn t last for long. We now must deal with the long-range effects of our actions. We are fully aware that our editorial will forever alter the way the public perceives the newspaper. When we need to report on the casino again, will our readers believe that we can still be objective? We also fear a ripple effect from other advertisers, some of whom have already cancelled or cut back on their advertising. The lost revenue already has the newspaper scrambling to avoid its demise. Even with these concerns, we would not handle the situation differently. If we had catered to our advertiser s demands, we would not be able to live with ourselves.
16 by Richard Greer 16. It is a routine story - three teenagers and two adults are arrested on burglary and stolen goods charges. The goods: $23,000 in computer equipment. The victim: Their high school. What would your newspaper do? Probably run it, with all its twists. The youths used a stolen key to enter the school and one later tells the newspaper that the burglary started out as fun, but the sight of the computers made grand larceny just too easy. Among the suspects are the son of your newspaper s general manager, the son of an elementary school principal in the same district as the burglarized school and the son of a state government division manager. Now, what would your newspaper do? When are parents of criminal suspects newsworthy? The State, a 150,000-circulation daily in Columbia, SC, ran the story. But the 16-paragraph description that I wrote became a six-paragraph brief devoid of family ties. The identities of the parents were confirmed early in the day. The story was deemed sensitive and discussions began. The deputy metro editor, Leesa Marsh, wanted the link between the newspaper s general manager, Sid Crim, and his son included despite the fact the son was 20 years old and did not live with his father. We make judgment calls almost every day about whether somebody is a public figure, and we ve occasionally identified business executives as such, Marsh said. When it comes to one of our own executives, we should be beyond reproach in our decision-making. I believed, as did Marsh, that the link between the principal and her son should be included in the story, too. It is somewhat unusual when a principal s 17-year-old son is accused of grand larceny against his school district. (In South Carolina, an adult is anyone 17 years old or older.) Incident reports from the four break-ins and warrants were reviewed. The suspects were telephoned, and to our surprise, they described how they simply walked into the building and hauled away boxes of computers. By 7 p.m., the story was complete. Metro desk editors edited the story and forwarded it to the copy desk. The original lead read: Deputies said they solved the case of a $23,000 theft from Spring Valley High School with the arrests of five people, including the sons of a school principal, a newspaper executive and a state government department head. What appeared the next morning was a brief story stating that the thefts occurred and that five people had been arrested. The suspects were named, but their relationships were not. Nor were their comments about the crimes included. Managing Editor Robert M. Hitt III made the decision to delete any references to parents and the suspects ties to the community. The simple guiding principal in my mind is not to brand the son with the sins of the father or vice-versa, unless there is an overriding news interest, Hitt said. There was no overriding news interest other than to hold up a principal, a state official and our general manager to ridicule for something that is not their fault. I find no fairness in that. He said he had no discussion with the newspaper s general manager before make his decision. Naming the parents would be acceptable, Hitt said, if the parents were highly placed in the community and the children were living at home, which the general manager s son was not. Hitt also noted that the youth who had the stolen key to the school was not the principal s son - an angle, which had it been present, would have made more of a case for including parental ties. I do not believe that the story was altered because of any pressure or connection with a newspaper executive. Yet I disagree with the decision because of the possible appearance of undue influence or special treatment. As the deputy metro editor put it, the newspaper must be beyond reproach. The State does not have any specific guidelines on using the names of parents of criminal suspects. But had the suspects been the products of impoverished, broken or violent homes, I believe that information would be included. If their mothers and fathers had been senators, police or judges, I believe that would be part of the story. What many readers in Columbia did not learn was that youths from comfortable middle-class backgrounds were accused of theft. They did not learn that these youths had ironic ties to the community. Had our readers known what we did, many would have been suspicious about the handling of the story. And, in a city the size of Columbia, many readers undoubtedly did know what we knew.
17 17. By R. Kapler Infiltrate Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, and in the process, expose its security weaknesses. Using an assumed name, I would apply for a job as a plant guard. The objective seemed a little far-fetched to a rookie reporter for a weekly newspaper. We were sure the bogus information on my employment application would trip all sorts of alarms as soon as it was checked. And there was always my own ineptness to help things along: The first day at the plant, I blew my cover at the front gate. I forgot to lie. Name? said the guard. Robert Kapler. He scanned the stack of names on his clipboard. Hmmm. Doesn t...seem like it s here. How do you spell it? Pause. B-E-Y-E-R. Beyer. Beyer? I thought you said, ah... No, Beyer. Robert Beyer. Before I knew it, the gate was lifting and I was driving down a winding road past yards of rusting equipment and concrete pipe. At last I rounded a stand of trees and the giant cooling towers came into view. In three weeks I would be in uniform, clicking a tiny camera inside the control room of the Unit 2 reactor. The idea to pose as a site protection officer grew out of a meeting with two former guards who had been railroaded out of their jobs. They described sexual antics on patrol, civilians wandering around the plant grounds late at night, and a metal-detection system so ineffective it couldn t detect a big cow bell. Gregg Security, which was under contract with TMI owner Metropolitan Edison, never checked out new hires, they said. The story was good, but Richard Halverson, my editor at The Guide, said it would read like the rantings of two frustrated nobodies with an ax to grind. And how could they be sure no one was checked out? How could they be privy to that information? I was thinking, Halverson said at last, about you going undercover out there. From the start, we had our reservations. Lying about my identity would not only be illegal, it would run contrary to the code of our trade. Investigative reporters do not break laws, they expose lawbreakers. And using subterfuge to gain access to a government-regulated facility might land me in jail for trespassing or fraud, or even a trumped-up charge of espionage. Supposing we did pull it off: what would stop Met-Ed from getting the story quashed in court? The Guide was just an ad rag wrapped in a single page of investigative stories. And though its publisher, Fry Communications, seemed healthy enough, would Henry Fry want to hire legal guns to defend me? On the other hand, we reasoned, if there were weak links in the plant s chain of security, a saboteur would do what was necessary to find and break them. Besides, our chance of success was so thin those questions were probably moot. In the end, the importance of the story outweighed any ethical or legal issues. We decided to give it a try. And so after blundering into the plant, I spent the next two weeks taking a battery of tests and learning the various security procedures. Before I knew it, I was wearing a badge, helmet, uniform and radiation sensor and monitoring the contract workers coming and going from crippled Unit 2. When I could, I explored the plant. Our little experiment continued without a hitch. Then something happened that I hadn t foreseen. In spite of myself, I began to identify with the other guards. The double life really bothered me. One moment I was joking, laughing and trading gossip with my co-workers, the next I was scribbling notes in a bathroom stall. I decided a line had to be drawn, and I drew it around Three Mile Island. If a guard asked me to go for a beer after work, I declined. If I was invited to a party, I didn t show. My reluctance to become intimate with my fellow workers did not sit well with Halverson. Once we had moled in, he wanted to exploit all possibilities. More and more, we argued over when to terminate the project, That s it! I finally yelled. I m sick of lying to people! Halverson relented, and a month after I first drove onto the island I went to see Met-Ed s head of security and told him what we had done. Nearly a decade has passed. Our little experiment has become but a footnote in history. Sometimes I still wonder: Was it right? We had suspended a rule of ethics - a reporter must not misrepresent himself - because we thought the issue of nuclear plant safety was crucial enough to make an exception. We also thought we would fail. We did not. Was it right? The answer came the day I drove onto Three Mile Island. Using a simple lie, we had proved nuclear plant security - national security - could easily be breached. Yes, it was right.
18 ` by Doug Hennes 18. The flyer was the kind of advertising you see all the time in the personals columns of Twin Cities alternative weekly newspapers. The gay owner of a St. Paul duplex was looking for a renter and a roommate. Landlord considers value to be about $450/month, but any and all offers will be accepted, read the flyer, which also featured a photo of a man in a T- shirt next to a man without a shirt. I ll tell you about my best offer when you call. Some consideration will be made for compatibility with the lifestyle of the landlord, who lives downstairs. Newsworthy? Not really. The flyer, however, was printed on the campaign stationery of St. Paul School Board member Al Oertwig, the man wearing the T-shirt, and was distributed in several gay bars. Newsworthy now? That was the debate recently in the newsroom of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Three staffers education reporter Nancy Livingston; her assignment editor, Jim Ragsdale; and Mike Sweeney, a second assignment editor argued that while Oertwig may have shown a lapse in judgment, the flyer itself was not newsworthy. It had to do with his personal life, they said, and did not reflect on his abilities as a school board member. Sweeney doubted we would write the same article if Oertwig were heterosexual and seeking a female roommate. We were giving extra attention to the flyer, Sweeney said, because Oertwig was gay and because many people specifically, many parents are uncomfortable about the influence that gays could have on their school-aged children. But Sweeney was most concerned about the ramifications of the article on Oertwig s children, ages 10 and 14. It was not widely known that Oertwig was gay; our newspaper, in fact, had never mentioned it. While his children knew Oertwig was gay, Sweeney feared they would be ridiculed and ostracized by classmates once the word was out. Editors who favored publication, including myself, maintained the flyer was newsworthy because Oertwig was using his campaign stationery and his position as an elected public official to solicit an individual. And in interviews with Livingston, two fellow school board members questioned his lack of judgment. We felt it would have been a story if he d been seeking a male or female roommate. But it was necessary to include his sexual orientation as a matter of record; the flyer was distributed only in gay bars. After listening to all of the arguments during a spirited session with metro desk editors, Editor Deborah Howell decided the flyer was newsworthy. Another question was where to play the article. We considered running an item in Tipoff, a Sunday Metro page 3 column typically dominated by political and government inside talk and gossip. Philosophically, we decided against Tipoff because we wanted to treat the issue in a straightforward manner, and its inclusion in Tipoff might appear we were attempting to titillate readers. Practically speaking, the article was too long for Tipoff. All of us felt the article should not appear on the front page. It ended up at the bottom of a Monday Metro section cover, with Oertwig s file photo. The article was 11 column inches. In the article, Oertwig admitted the flyer was probably not advisable. He used his title to fully identify himself, and he used the picture to draw attention. My public life is a big part of who I am as a person, he said. If I am going to have somebody in the house I can be friends with, it s got to be somebody who understands who I am. Oertwig didn t buy our reason misuse of his public position for publishing an article. If you perceive the ethical issue is that I misused stationery, then make that the issue, he told me afterwards. But you used stationery as a means to talk about the other issue sexual preference. Did you need to use the word gay? I don t think so. The political implication for me is not the misuse of stationery... Every call I received has to do with sexual identity, not the stationery. I don t think it would have been a story if you didn t have the sexual identity issue to deal with. That made the story. We got little reader reaction. Oertwig said he got about 30 calls in the first week after the article, and most of them were positive and supportive. His children had received little negative feedback from classmates, he said. One political gadfly and perennial candidate called for Oertwig s resignation at a recent school board meeting, but he does not intend to step down. I ask for your understanding instead, Oertwig said at the meeting. I do not ask you to change your values or beliefs, but allow me to continue the services I have begun... It has not been easy for me to say, Yes, I am gay. I sympathize, in one respect, with Oertwig. The consequences of this single lapse in judgment could be significant in the long run. But even today, I feel we made the right choice in publishing the article. It s a choice we would make again under similar circumstances, regardless of the individual s sexual orientation or gender.
19 by John Gillespie 19. Becoming involved in a police chase is a heck of a proposition for the average citizen. But what if you are a journalist with a camera rolling and the suspect turns out to be a drug dealer wanted for the attempted murder of an elderly woman? And you ve got about one second to make your decision? It was just before 1 p.m. on September 1, Some chatter about a stakeout on our police scanner prompted photographer Tim Flanigan and me to check it out. I took the wheel and he got his camera ready in case it turned into anything. By the time we got there, the stakeout was a foot chase. The first thing we saw, and videotaped, was a shirtless, shoeless man running fast between houses; the police were well behind. We moved a couple of blocks ahead, hoping to get an arrest on tape. What we got was the suspect running straight for our unmarked news car, with the pursuing officers losing ground. And then came the question to myself as much as Tim: Do I stop him? This is where the Role of the Media seminar is supposed to freeze the tape and consider all the other questions before tuning in for the ending. Is the reporter there to observe, no matter what? Is the obligation only to the story and the audience and not the police? Does the obligation to the audience include being a good citizen and intervening? If he does intervene, does the reporter endanger himself, the police or the public, or does he make the situation worse? If he does nothing and the suspect gets away, may he use the tape of the escape? May he use the tape if he helps in the capture? Whatever the outcome, how will the community react? Any of these could spark lively debate without any right or wrong answers being reached. But I needed the right answer fast. I decided to stop him. To be honest, I didn t know why the police wanted him. The first thing you hear on our tape is my voice asking Tim: Do I stop him? Then I m jumping from the car and running toward the suspect with my arms outstretched, a technique I picked up while working my way through college as a campus police officer. Apparently the suspect thought I was a plainclothes police officer. He looked up, saw me, stopped, threw up his arms and said I give up. And a few seconds later the cops caught up and arrested him. Now came the editorial decisions. We had a terrific story, a scoop. The savage beating of the elderly woman during a burglary attempt had been the lead story for two days. But how could we separate that from my involvement? News Director Al Volker, Executive Producer Juli Buehler, Assignment Editor Randy Lube and I watched the raw tape and tossed out ideas. Everyone endorsed running the unedited tape with the sound full, including my question to Tim. Volker suggested I do the story from the news set to make it more personal and to give one of those No, kids, don t try this at home disclaimers. I wanted the copy to explain that it was one of those split-second decisions that could have gone either way and that I just did what I thought I had to do. Buehler wondered if that wasn t going too far. But I insisted that it was the only way to let people know that it wasn t a publicity stunt. And I figured they would believe our story only if it was true and they heard it from me. So we did it my way. We were lucky. The successful capture made most of the decisions that came after rather easy. The public reaction was very positive. I received awards from the local CrimeStoppers and the county crime prevention association and a letter of appreciation from the Green Bay police chief, which the mayor read before the City Council. The suspect, David Pleau, is in prison, serving time after conviction on the attempted murder charge. My own feeling is that my reaction was the right one for me. In my mind, there is little difference between jumping in front of a fleeing suspect and a story that points the finger at those guilty of environmental pollution, or graft, or murder. In any case, the action serves the public interest. And that is what this business is supposed to be about: serving the public. In this case, it was just a little more dramatic and a little more direct.
20 by Timothy D. Smith 20. On the afternoon of April 5, 1979, a stocky blonde in a blue dress driving a gray sedan was pulled over by a Medina sheriff s deputy answering a burglary call. The deputy ordered the blonde from the car and asked for identification. The blonde, heavily made up with lipstick and rouge and wearing a wig, responded that his name was Mark Whitfield. If the deputy was nervous, it wasn t because he had just nabbed a desperate criminal. Mark Whitfield was a Medina County commissioner - one of the trio of officials who formed the executive authority for county government. He was also the son of Judge Neil Whitfield, probably the county s most prominent and powerful public official. The deputy was new to the job but it did not take a veteran to understand the potential for disaster in this situation. He radioed for assistance and the sheriff himself responded. Before the sheriff could get to the scene, one of his top officers arrived and drove Whitfield home to change. No arrest was made nor any charges filed, even though Whitfield admitted trying to get into the home of a woman he knew slightly. (His attempt had been spotted by a neighbor.) Instead, the sheriff called the woman and her husband into his office to meet with Whitfield a few days later. Whitfield did not, or could not, explain his actions. He merely admitted the attempt, as well as a similar attempt the previous February. He acknowledged having a problem and promised to get psychiatric help. The woman and her husband agreed not to press charges, provided that Whitfield stayed away from them. Even though no formal charges were filed, the reporter covering Medina County for the Akron Beacon Journal heard bits and pieces about Whitfield s problem. After considerable prodding, the sheriff confirmed the events, including how Whitfield was dressed that day. Next, the reporter confronted Whitfield with what she had uncovered. He begged her not to publish the story because of what it would do to his family and to his father, who, he insisted, knew nothing of his problems. She pointed out that he appeared to be at the mercy of anyone who wanted something from the commissioners office. He was a public official with a secret that could be very damaging. Whitfield wanted the story killed for obvious reasons. The reporter and I conferred over Whitfield s request, but there was no room for compromise. The most we could do was give him the weekend to break the news to his family before the story appeared. Publication was scheduled for a Tuesday. On Monday, Whitfield abruptly announce his resignation from office for personal reasons. With Whitfield out of office, was there still a story? No charges had been filed. The facts weren t in dispute, but were they still newsworthy? Was it fair to write a story saying the real reason Whitfield had resigned was to avoid public disclosure of his transvestitism? It seemed particularly cruel to reveal now the condition that Whitfield had given up his public career to keep private. The editor, the managing editor and I (then metro editor) debated through the day whether to run the story as the explanation of the personal reasons. The arguments in favor of publication were vintage journalistic ones: we had a good story all to ourselves; there was no question as to accuracy; we had put in a lot of time and effort on the story. On the other side, there was an equally good journalistic argument: it wasn t fair to do the story now that Whitfield had voluntarily eliminated what we had said was the main reason for the story - his status as an elected official. The decision was that the story died with the end of Whitfield s public career. There was, however, plenty of opportunity for secondguessing. A few years later, Whitfield considered running for Congress. Was the story now news again? Was it fair to dredge up the past? We had killed the story because Whitfield had stepped out of the public spotlight. If he were to re-enter it voluntarily, then those aspects of his personality that had been fair game in the past would become fair game again. At least, that was the prevailing attitude, but no final decision was required because the filing deadline passed with no petition from Whitfield. That wasn t the end, though. In the mid-80s, Whitfield was identified as the prime suspect in a bizarre case involving the death of his secretary some 10 years earlier. She had been found nude, hanging by a scarf in her bedroom closet. The investigation that led to Whitfield s indictment for her murder (he was acquitted) also resulted in disclosure of the transvestite episode. The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer picked up on that aspect of the larger story first, followed shortly by Cleveland Magazine. The magazine reported our explanation for not using the story. Perhaps it was just my thin skin, but there also seemed to be a suggestion that the elder Whitfield s influence might have been a factor as well. I guess it was the price to be paid for killing a story that later came out anyway. Our motives could be challenged in hindsight, but nothing that has happened since has altered my belief that we did the right thing in not publishing the Whitfield episode at the time. The reason we went after the story was our belief that Whitfield s private life could have affected his public performance. He certainly was open to pressure from anyone who wanted favors from a powerful public official. His resignation did not change what had happened, but it changed our duty to report what we knew.