Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Journalism Ethics #2

Just as truth is the ultimate defense in a libel case its pursuit provides a fantastic fuel that should drive a journalist, a sacred core value immune from external coercion, greed, or delusions of grandeur. But in the rush to be first in this new 24/7 newscycle brought on by the instantaneous Internet the whole truth is often partially obscured, yet the publish button is still clicked.

For me the most important founding principal of the online news association under 'Seek Truth and Report It' was the last (the reverse of a reverse pyramid is a pyramid): "Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection."

Because government oftentimes purposely use its considerable power to keep the populace uninformed, it is the job of the journalist to know by heart the Open Meeting Law and Public Documents Law the two best weapons for keeping government honest.

About 15 years ago when I was writing columns for the Amherst Bulletin an anonymous (older) woman caller tipped me that "something was wrong out at the Cherry Hill Golf Course." She said a popular young female summer worker just suddenly disappeared and the other employees refused to talk about it.

I hit the town manager with a public documents request for a list of seasonal employees at the start of the season and a current list (it was mid-summer) and any letters of resignation for the one name that may not show up as currently still employed.

He refused on the grounds of the "privacy exemption" the most frequently invoked (out of a handful of allowed exemptions) by government officials. I appealed and Alan Cote the Secretary of Public Records agreed with me that because the Golf Course is municipally owned and tax supported any documents related to employment are public.

But then they tried to withhold them because they were of a "sensitive nature." Again the State agreed with me and said the documents could be redacted to protect the young woman but they still had to turn them over.

Turns out the Golf Course manager, Dan Engstrom (who was married at the time) engaged in "banter" of a sexual nature with the young woman employee, making crude suggestive remarks about her body and it even escalated to where he physically touched her.

The towns "Human Rights Director" investigated (it was her redacted report they grudgingly turned over) and found him guilty. The woman was paid a full season compensation and then some (just under $10,000) and Mr.Engstrom was giving one month leave with pay.

Of course the reason town officials wanted to keep it secret is because the golf course superintendent would have been hard to replace (especially mid-season) if fired for engaging in the behavior that in a PC town like Amherst would almost guarantee dismissal if word got out to the general public.

About ten years later I requested a season pass customer list with names and addresses to ascertain how many patrons are actually from Amherst which heavily subsidizes the operation of the golf course with town tax money. Town officials refused saying it was a violation of individuals privacy. The state agreed with me and the list demonstrated that over the half the patrons lived outside Amherst.

About five years ago I received a call from Cindy Pepyne, investigator at the District Attorney's office, saying the Springfield Republican wanted from their office a short list of people who had successfully used Public Documents and Open Meeting Law so the paper could request they write a guest column during "Sunshine Week."

The DAs office refused to comply because the names (as whistleblowers) were exempt from public documents. But the DAs office called the people directly and informed them about the idea with contact information for the newspaper editor; and I of course returned the call and wrote a guest column on the matter for the Springfield Republican--and they did note it odd that the DAs office charged with enforcing Sunshine Laws were themselves exempt.
Minimize harm is kind of like the military attempting to neutralize only combatants while minimizing "collateral damage" to innocent civilians. And that is always a lot harder than just ordering a B52 "carpet bombing" of an entire area and returning it to the stone age.

Just as an uncaring journalist can name innocent civilians related to the target of their investigation and by tying them to a negative story damage their reputations. Sometimes it is unavoidably as when the media exposes a national politician like John Edwards cheating on his cancer suffering wife, and unless you are a columnist you cannot be overly sympathetic but can still skip some of the more lurid details bound to bring pain to the immediate family.

Three months ago Catherine Sanderson and I received an anonymous three-page letter in the mail from a school employee lamenting "the coup" that had just brought down rookie Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez.

The letter was filled with enough seasoned personal observations--many of them about administrators who are public figures--to indicate the writer was indeed an insider but also contained information about some people who would be considered private, one of them a young child.

I redacted the names of almost everybody and published it in its entirety. A few people figured out their own names and were furious, but interestingly most of them were public figures where I probably did not have to redact their names in the first place.
Under 'Act independently', my pick as number pick is of course: "Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable." I think for me it's a personal thing. I started martial arts training in 1972 the year of the "Olympic massacre" at Munich, where Israeli athletes (in a martial art like sport) were massacred simply because of their nationality and the same year as the Watergate break in where I first learned a President could lie.

Like your first kiss, a media junkie will always remember their first 'Letter To The Editor'. Mine was to the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 1982 lamenting the Munich Massacre on the 10th anniversary (even in my early stages I knew the media loved anniversaries) and warning about the tremendous abuse of power exhibited by those zealots known as "terrorists," out for self styled glory and massive media attention, with the conscious of a great white shark.
Under "Be Accountable"--like most bloggers who take their art seriously--I consider it job #1 for a journalist (and bloggers who take their art seriously are journalists!) to "expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media."

The profession should be able to police itself. Half of all doctors, lawyers or hairstylists graduated at the bottom half of their class. It's up to those who take their profession seriously (possibly those in the upper-half graduation levels) to police their own.

And the ubiquitous Internet is the perfect platform for that.


Julius Lester said...

Your comments on journalistic ethics were trenchant and most welcome. I like the idea of journalists policing themselves. However it seems that journalists have carte blanche to expose the sexual lives of public figures, while I have no doubt that some of these same journalists are committing adultery and who knows what else? Journalists have no compunction about exposing the lives of others for the entertainment of the prurient while hiding their lives. These remarks are not aimed at you, Larry, but a more general comment on a hypocrisy I see in journalism.

Julius Lester

LarryK4 said...

Agreed Julius (good hearing from you again.)

I was told by a long-time reporter (you would know) that they don't want to see their photo on my blog.

And when Newspapers of New England purchased the Gazette/Bulletin a few years back, they refused to disclose the purchase price.

The old "do as I say and not as I do" routine.

Ed said...

Larry, I read that letter (the version you posted, and couldn't for the life of me understand what the issue really was.

I was neither impressed with the Supt nor his antics.

As to ethics - and Dr. Lester's comment - a decade ago, I had the really juicy sex scandal that was why UMass dumped Mark's Meadow back onto the town. (There also was the issue of using state money to hire employees for a private consulting agency, etc, etc, etc...) I didn't run the story because there were three children in the Middle School who didn't deserve to be humiliated for what a parent had done.

There was no way to tell the story that wouldn't immediately identify the children. So I didn't print it. I still think I made the right call...