Updates on ethical decision-making in newsrooms big and small, written by Poynter’s Kelly McBride, Bob Steele and colleagues.

Questions to consider before publishing autopsy reports

Ever since Dale Earnhardt crashed and died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, autopsy results have been tricky material for journalists. Florida journalists sued the state to release photos from Earnhardt’s autopsy, so that independent experts could determine whether a head restraint would have saved Earnhardt’s life. (It would have, most agreed and most auto racing authorities require their use.)

Students at the University of Oklahoma are grappling this week with an autopsy report. There, the staff of the Oklahoma Daily linked to the autopsy results of a student who died in a fall from a building. Autopsy results are part of the public record in Oklahoma, as they are in Florida.

However, whenever journalists clumsily manage such records, they give state lawmakers the ammunition to erode the public record and make bad public policy. When death records are private, citizens are deprived of valuable knowledge.

That’s exactly what happened in Florida. Journalists demanded the Earnhardt photos for justifiable reasons. But Earnhardt’s family and fans were sickened by the notion of others looking at the NASCAR driver’s gruesome injuries, which included a basilar skull fracture, the very injury that head restraints are designed to prevent. Still, following the outcry, Florida enacted a law that sealed autopsy photos, videos and other recordings from the public record.

It’s easy for lawmakers to stand up for privacy and decency while portraying journalists who access autopsy results as predatory carrion feeders who want to splash vulgar images across the Internet for prurient minds.

Journalists don’t do a very good job explaining their motives. When Earnhardt died, newspaper editors said they weren’t interested in publishing the images, but they said that only after then Gov. Jeb Bush held a press conference declaring the photos should be sealed, with Earnhardt’s widow standing at his side.

Autopsy results and other death records reveal crucial information about the health of our society, our criminal justice system and medical care.

When journalists have probed autopsy results, the results are dramatic. They’ve revealed that possible homicides are going unprosecuted, that babies are possibly dying from abuse and not SIDS, and that state-housed psychiatric patients were needlessly dying.

In his book “And the Band Played On,” Randy Shilts used autopsies to help document how the government prioritized budget concerns above public health during the emergence of the AIDS crisis.

Keeping death records and autopsy results open and accessible to the public allows journalists and citizens to scrutinize health trends, how we die, the role government may play in our deaths.

Yet, it’s hard to argue for the value of open death records, including autopsies, when the public is incensed about the mishandling of one particular record.

Journalists can do two things to combat such miscues. First, doing good journalism drawn from death records goes a long way. Groundbreaking investigative work that reveals trends or holds the powerful accountable will always resonate with the public.

Second, when accessing autopsy results or directing public attention to such results, explain the journalistic reason for doing so, before the outcry. Minimize the harm to the family by avoiding unnecessary images or links to gruesome or embarrassing information.

Here are questions to consider before publishing autopsy reports:

  • What public good comes from looking at the autopsy report?
  • How can you shield the public and the deceased’s family and friends from unnecessary and gruesome details, while still protecting that public good? Is there information you could consider redacting? If you do, explain to readers why you have redacted some material.
  • What’s the best way to present the relevant information in the autopsy? A link, screen grab, a PDF, an embedded document, a bulleted list? What warning might you provide before exposing readers to the autopsy report?
  • How can you communicate your intentions to the family and listen to their concerns?
  • How should you communicate your journalistic goals to the public?

If you carefully consider these questions and your options before publishing, you are more likely to avoid the backlash faced by students in Oklahoma this week. Read more


Thursday, July 12, 2012

FILE - In this Aug. 6, 1999, file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with his defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky during Penn State Media Day at State College, Pa. In a statement made Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, retired Penn State assistant coach Sandusky, who faces child sex abuse charges in a case that led to the firing of Paterno, says Paterno's death is a sad day. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis, File)

How to cover the Freeh Report on Penn State, child sexual abuse

Louis Freeh’s powerful condemnation of Penn State officials is bound to set off a barrage of equally powerful reactions among those who live with the scars of childhood sex abuse.

And there are a lot of people who live with those scars. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18. Those numbers are astounding and in many cases adults do not believe this problem is that prevalent. But it is that prevalent. Childhood sexual assault is a common occurrence that transcends all socio-economic barriers. Rich children and poor children of every race are victims of abuse.

In your own newsroom, people who are working on this story are dealing with their own trauma.

In your audience, people who read or watch this story may need support.

In this Aug. 6, 1999 file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with his defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky during Penn State Media Day at State College, Pa. (Paul Vathis, File/AP)

In your community, survivors will call your newsroom and want to tell their story of adults who failed them, of schools, churches, youth sports leagues and non-profit groups that professed to have the best interests of children in mind and instead turned the other way when they were presented with evidence that adults were raping children.

Newsrooms and websites have a responsibility to delve into the 267-page report on Jerry Sandusky, child sexual abuse and Penn State. Then go beyond it. Focus on your staff, focus on your audience, focus on the local community.

  • Use this as an opportunity to tell people just how often children are sexually assaulted. The studies that show 25 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys are consistent and thorough. They are reinforced anecdotally by the experience of survivors who go public. They will tell you that everywhere they reveal their own personal stories, other survivors step up to say that an adult assaulted them.
  • Use the graphic details and explain why you are using the graphic details. One reason most of us have failed to recognize the epidemic of child sexual assault is because journalists mask the horror with words like “molest” and “fondle” and “perform.” In fact, in many of these cases, adults are raping children. They are raping them orally, anally and vaginally. Our desire to be inoffensive has led to a gross distortion of what really happens.
  • Do a round up of local resources and make those available with every story that you broadcast or publish. Some great national resources include the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and RAINN. Tell your audience about the anecdotal experience of survivors, which shows that those who disclose the abuse, get counseling and in the appropriate setting confront their abusers, fare better emotionally.
  • Make support services available to staff inside the newsroom as well.
  • Beware of perpetuating bad information. Three of the common myths that journalists often stumble into are:
    • Children who are abused are at a high risk of becoming abusers. In fact, most abuse victims do not grow up to abuse.
    • Survivors never recover from the emotional damage.
    • Offenders were likely abused themselves. One study asked offenders under polygraph if they were abused as children and 30 percent reported that they were.

Freeh’s report will likely turn out to be a significant tipping point in America’s collective understanding of how organizations fail when it comes to protecting children.

Freeh, former director of the FBI, identifies key trends that we’ve seen in other systemic breakdowns, including an institutional wish to avoid bad publicity, the desire to spare the assailant humiliation of prosecution, a lack of empathy for the victims, a collective belief that the children are lying, and overall interest in placing the financial needs of the institution in front of the responsibility to care for children.

There are likely small and large institutions everywhere trapped in these same patterns. If journalists don’t hold them accountable, it’s possible no one will.

Related: News University has additional resources on covering child sex abuse. Read more


Thursday, June 28, 2012

The questions we wish CNN and FOX would answer

Having deconstructed many bad decisions with newsrooms across the country, I’ve been trying to analyze what we can learn from what went wrong Thursday at both Fox and CNN, which initially misinterpreted the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.

This process always starts by asking the right questions.

The answers to these questions will be instructive to anyone who is interested in making journalism more accurate and increasing public trust in the news.

Here’s what we’d ask CNN and Fox. (We’ve sent questions along these lines to both networks and will update if we hear back.)

1. Walk us through your reporting on the decision, step by step.
2. Describe who was reading the decision for your newsroom, how many pages that individual read, and what he or she conveyed back to the newsroom based on that reading?
3. Knowing this would be a complex issue to cover (both because the health care law is complex and Supreme Court decisions are difficult to digest), how did you prepare for the variety of scenarios possible? And how did you make everyone on all the different platforms aware of that plan?
4. How did you realize you made a mistake and how did you determine what to do next?
5. Were you aware of what others were reporting and how did that influence your newsroom?
6. What changes in editorial procedures or staffing will happen as a result of this review?

Newsrooms struggle with these questions for a number of reasons. Whenever you start peeling apart the decisions involved a big mistake, the first impulse is to put the best spin on things. And you can see that in the inadequate statements issued by both newsrooms. So far, both networks are sticking by their initial explanation that blames Chief Justice John Roberts for writing that the law was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause. Fox is also pointing out that CNN’s mistakes were more extensive.

There’s no question that publishing wrong information undermines the public’s ability to trust journalists. But we gain some trust back when we explain ourselves in a way that takes responsibility for our mistakes. Read more


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


What’s wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself (at least 13 times)

Here’s why Jonah Lehrer was wrong to recycle his words and ideas in at least 13 instances uncovered by three different people (make that four) and then by The New Yorker, which is adding Editor’s Notes to stories with duplication, including the ones listed below:

Lehrer is an idea-guy, a writer whose talent is taking a complicated concept — like choking (the failure-to-perform kind) or how intellectual ability undermines rational thought — and making it accessible and interesting, even intriguing to us mere mortals. His work makes us smarter.

As a reader, when you approach his writing, whether it’s in The New Yorker or Wired or The Wall Street Journal, you do so with an unspoken contract: You devote some of your precious time, he’ll take you and a few thousand others to a new intellectual space.

Only it turns out that new space isn’t so new at all. Like a boyfriend who recycles the same seemingly spontaneous romantic moments on a succession of dates, Lehrer has already taken some other audience to this same place, for that same experience.

Some of you may say, “I’m OK with that, it was a good experience for me.” But if he’d just told you upfront, “Hey, I went here with this other audience and now I’d like to take you on the same trip” it all might have been fine.

But he didn’t say that. Not to his readers and not to his bosses either. Instead he let us believe this was new territory, a fresh idea. Now instead of feeling smarter, we feel duped.

This cheating is a form of infidelity, a minor one. If he’d done it once, we his audience could simply give him the benefit of the doubt. But his pattern suggests a deliberate disrespect or even a contempt for the reader’s desire to experience something unique and genuine. The more instances of duplicity we discover, the more it seems Lehrer devalues originality – the very thing we turn to him for. Had he stolen words from someone else – plagiarized-plagiarized rather than self-plagiarized — we’d all be calling it quits.

Instead, we readers are disappointed. Our enthusiasm wilts ever-so-slightly. It  takes the shine off. Does it doom our relationship? Not immediately. But what happens in the coming hours, days, weeks, months takes on great weight. If we discover more indiscretions, then our trust withers. Perhaps beyond redemption.

So, when is it OK to recycle your own content? What are the ethical issues surrounding this practice? And how should news organizations respond when they learn that a reporter has “self-plagiarized”? We answered these questions in a live chat with Jack Shafer, Craig Silverman and Kelly McBride .

You can replay the chat here:

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=6f2168e8c2″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=6f2168e8c2″ >How unethical is it for journalists to ‘steal’ from their own work?</a> Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012

ESPN reporter Michael Smith was one of the staffers to post pictures of them wearing hoodies.

ESPN should find ways to cover the Trayvon Martin story rather than become part of it

ESPN.com‘s Jemele Hill did a very nice, tight column this week explaining how the lives of professional athletes are connected to the life and death of Trayvon Martin.

Contrast that to ESPN’s bouncing back and forth on whether its talent can post a photo of a “hoodie” via social media in solidarity with the family of the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.

NFL reporter Michael Smith was one of the ESPN staffers to don a hoodie.

As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others — including ESPN anchors Trey Wingo and Mike Hill, NFL reporter Michael Smith and Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams — who donned hoodies in their Twitter avatars.

If you want to make a difference, explain the story, don’t become part of it.

This is a basic tenet of journalism that is becoming lost in this day of social media – also known as slacktivism. It feels good to join a popular movement by slapping a bumper sticker on your car or wearing your heart on your sleeve. But with a little work, and a little self-restraint, journalists can do so much more.

Using LeBron James’ and other athletes’ show of solidarity as a jumping-off point, Hill explains why Trayvon’s story matters to the sporting world. She offers a litany of examples that document how professional athletes, some of the richest, most powerful people in our society, are often victims of racial profiling.

She practiced journalism. And it’s so much more effective than pulling up the hood on your sweatshirt and taking a picture.

Rob King, senior vice president of editorial for ESPN digital and print media, was involved in the decision over the weekend to allow an exception to the company’s social media policy and allow employees to post the hoodie image on social networks. There was a robust conversation about the topic among ESPN executives before a decision was made, King told us.

“We asked, ‘What are they expressing?’ ” King said. “Visually, they are expressing their notions of tolerance around the case. We feel this is a unique expression.”

In the abstract, that is certainly true. But in the specific instance of this case, the hoodie is a visual expression of support for the parents of Trayvon and their petition for law enforcement to bring charges against the man who killed their son. King said he believes that most of the ESPN folks using the hoodie image were expressing broader support for the value of tolerance.

Even if that’s the case, there’s no way for the audience to know which sentiment was being expressed by the hoodie, or the intent behind it. And we don’t know how the facts in this specific story will continue to change. Hill’s story, meanwhile, will remain salient.

Journalists and other ESPN employees sit on a perch of influence. So they have an enormous reach. They should take that role seriously. When you become part of the story, you lose your ability to tell an independent story. Although it seems sympathetic, and even morally superior, to offer up a political commentary, leave that to the athletes – many, including members of the Miami Heat, showed support for Martin — and, instead, find a way to help the audience better understand the story. (ESPN NBA columnist Michael Wallace wrote about the Heat sending a message of support for Martin last weekend).

ESPN’s policy that prohibits its commentators, anchors, reporters and analysts from making personal political statements is a good one because it preserves the individual’s ability to do powerful work that others cannot do. Although we applaud the willingness to wrestle with the social media policy — it should be a living, breathing document — we were disheartened to see ESPN make an exception to the strongly rooted journalism value of independence.

And it’s not because we want to silence ESPN staffers. Instead, we’d like to see them cover the story, as it relates to sports. Hill found a way to do it. Certainly others can, as well.

This post was also published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project. Read more


Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

How ESPN published “Chink in the Armor” Jeremy Lin headline & what’s happened since

The rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ Asian-American star, has been one of 2012’s feel-good sports stories. But it’s come with an unwelcome undercurrent: racial references by fans, columnists and TV personalities that have ranged from innocent-but-cringe-worthy to openly offensive.

Last week, ESPN went from the sidelines of this spectacle to center stage, issuing three apologies within 24 hours for “offensive and inappropriate comments” that led to one employee’s dismissal and another’s suspension for 30 days.

The first incident to garner widespread attention involved a headline on ESPN’s mobile website early Saturday morning. As ESPN dealt with the fallout from that mistake, its attention was drawn to another incident, on ESPNEWS on Wednesday night, then to a third on ESPN Radio on Friday night. All three involved the phrase “chink in the armor,” which has no racial connotations in itself but was an unfortunate choice — to say the least — when used in discussing Lin’s on-court performance.

After looking into the incidents, The Poynter Review Project sees one as a lapse in judgment by an editor working without a net and the other two as terribly timed slips of the tongue. One of the punishments imposed strikes us as too severe. And we note that the phrase that got ESPN in so much trouble is awfully shopworn and lazy. Whether they can be misinterpreted or not, clichés are signs of a writer or speaker on cruise control — which increases the chance of a crash.

How mobile mistake happened

Let’s look at the headline first. According to ESPN, it appeared on the mobile website around 2:30 a.m. Saturday and was taken down about 35 minutes later. The headline linked to a story by Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com about whether the Knicks’ loss to the New Orleans Hornets had exposed weaknesses in Lin’s game.

Anthony Mormile, vice president for mobile content at ESPN, said the Bristol-based editorial team for the mobile sites consists of eight people who usually work two per shift. After 2 a.m., one editor is often catching up on the “back end,” updating content for sports that aren’t in season and taking care of other editorial loose ends. The other editor is generally handling the “front end” of the site, loading up “experience carousels” with headlines, summaries and links to articles. (Because cellphones offer less screen real estate than desktop computers, the mobile editors often write different headlines.)

Mormile said that, on Saturday night, the front-end editor — 28-year-old Anthony Federico, who had six years of experience on the mobile team — liked Begley’s column and decided to spotlight it for the mobile site, sensing that the conversation had shifted from the Knicks’ loss to potential holes in Lin’s game. As Mormile noted, Federico “created more work for himself” in doing so, and, by deciding to feature the Lin story on the mobile home page, “in theory, he did absolutely 100 percent the right thing.”

Unfortunately, his choice of headlines unraveled all that. Said Mormile, “Anthony had no concept, no awareness that could be construed as a potentially explosive headline.”

Rob King, senior vice president for editorial, print and digital, said that, as things now stand, the Web and mobile sides of ESPN’s house are technologically different and generally work in parallel, not together. On the Web side, King said, lead content packages and headlines go through a copy desk before they’re pushed live, and a copy editor is always there when a home page editor is working. But the mobile team doesn’t have “that level of oversight … you had one person making a move that a lot of people could see.”

Mormile says the mobile editors generally double-check each other’s work, providing at least an informal safety net. But the other editor on Federico’s shift was busy supporting ESPN’s Bracket Bound app, which is getting a lot of usage in the run-up to March Madness. Federico pushed the headline out himself — and, when Mormile was alerted a little after 3 a.m., Twitter “was blowing up with people putting up screen shots and condemnations.”

The next morning, ESPN issued a prepared statement saying that “we are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake.” Linking to that statement via Twitter, King wrote that “there’s no defense for the indefensible. All we can offer are our apologies, sincere though incalculably inadequate.”

Multiple references over several days

By then, though, ESPN was dealing with another unfortunate use of the phrase: ESPNEWS anchor Max Bretos had used it Wednesday night while interviewing Knicks analyst Walt Frazier. That brought another apology, one also made on the air Saturday. The third use of the phrase in connection with Lin came to light after that: On Friday night, Knicks play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes had said it on ESPN Radio New York.

On Sunday, Federico was dismissed and Bretos suspended for 30 days. (Dedes is employed by MSG Network, which produces the Knicks’ radio broadcasts.) John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, said that the two decisions were reached after “a number of conversations” and that, although “the subject matter was the same, we looked at each incident on its own.”

Mormile said Federico “was devastated, but understood” the company’s decision. On Twitter, Bretos apologized, said his comment was “not done with any racial reference,” acknowledged that the phrase had been inappropriate in that context and pledged to “make every effort to avoid something similar happening again.” Asked about Dedes, an MSG spokesman said Monday that “we are evaluating and will have no additional comment at this time.”

Why one firing and one suspension?

One potential factor in the severity of the punishments: Earlier in the week, racial sensitivity regarding the Lin storyline was a topic in the company’s monthly editorial board meeting, and ESPN issued a memo to all its content groups urging staffers to be cognizant of how Lin was discussed — a directive that was revisited in a Friday staff meeting.

Anyone who had followed other media outlets’ Lin coverage understood the need for caution: MSG had shown a fan-made graphic of Lin emerging from a fortune cookie; the New York Post celebrated a Lin buzzer-beater with the back-page headline “AMASIAN!”; and Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock had apologized for a sophomoric, racially tinged tweet about Lin. Not long after discussing the need to avoid such missteps, however, ESPN had a flurry of its own to deal with.

Mormile praised Federico as “a good, good kid,” and called the mistake “a momentary lapse of judgment that ended up being an egregious error.” Many journalists have been saved by the sharp eyes of others and some luck; sadly, Federico had neither on his side. But, even at mobile speed, a headline writer has time to deliberate, and learning how to step back and assess one’s work is a critical skill. (We reached out to Federico, who didn’t want to comment at this time.)

The 30-day suspension of Bretos — who has been with ESPN for two years — strikes us as too harsh, though. Looking at the clip of Bretos’ comments, we see no sign he was trying to be snarky or clever, and an on-air reporter must think, listen and talk in real time, with no chance to review his or her words. Flubs and slips of the tongue are a hazard of the trade, and an unfortunate choice of words at the wrong time can be devastating. Reconsidering Bretos’ sentence would neither undermine ESPN’s speedy and forthright response to these incidents nor damage its efforts to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.

What’s next

One step we would suggest is for ESPN to demand that its writers and on-air talent find richer language and fresher turns of phrase. We’d be happy never to read or hear “chink in the armor” again on ESPN. That has nothing to do with political correctness or the possibility of an innocent phrase being misconstrued. Rather, it’s that the descriptive power of that phrase was leached away by overuse decades ago, and it’s now just clichéd noise — and a sign of someone on cruise control. (Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless discussed the issue of racial sensitivity and ESPN’s missteps on “First Take” on Monday morning.)

Technological help also might be on the way. King said that ESPN is “right in the middle of building a better process” that allows editors to publish to all platforms, which would align the mobile team’s efforts better with those of its Web counterparts and give its employees more of a safety net.

Technological fixes aren’t everything, of course: In its prepared statement, ESPN promised other measures, including self-examination and response to constructive criticism.

“It’s a teaching moment and a learning moment for the entire organization,” Wildhack said. “And that’s what we’re going to use it as.”

This post was simultaneously published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project. Read more


Monday, Jan. 30, 2012

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt speaks during a news conference in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011. Witt is one of the 16 National Football Foundation scholar-athletes of 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Yale Daily News, New York Times both make wrong call on Patrick Witt sexual assault complaint coverage

As the story of Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt (and his Rhodes scholarship that wasn’t) got more convoluted last week, both The New York Times and the Yale Daily News came under significant criticism — The Times, for running with a story that had too many holes, the Yale paper for holding a story they should have reported.

The critics are right. Both papers missed the journalistic mark on this one. The Times chose the wrong frame to tell the story. The Daily News let protocol prevent its journalists from acting as watchdogs. Because of these journalistic failures, the larger systemic issues faded into the background of our national conversation.

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt spoke at a December news conference in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: Last fall, the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee chose Witt as a finalist, leaving him with a tough choice: attend the day-long interview or play in the legendary Yale-Harvard game.

Witt withdrew from the scholarship, played in the game and garnered a lot of attention in the sports media, fueled by the Yale Public Relations Department, for putting the needs of his team in front of his own.

Where The New York Times failed

Last week the Times published a story suggesting that Witt’s withdrawal was actually due to an informal sexual assault complaint that had been filed on campus. The Rhodes committee, according to the Times, had been tipped off to the complaint and had asked Yale’s President to re-endorse Witt. Before that happened, Witt withdrew from the process, the Times reported.

The Times’ story takes a simple narrative arc, implying that Witt’s original storyline as a young athlete-scholar faced with Sophie’s choice was in fact a lie. But the Times story includes little timeline information and no details of the incident that prompted the complaint. The Times tells its readers that the journalists who wrote the story did not know the name of the woman who filed the complaint and therefore had no way of interviewing her.

By leaving that part of the story blank, the Times feeds into a two commonly mistaken lines of thought about sexual assault: That rape is invisible, faceless and a possible pathway for scorned women seeking revenge.

Critics condemned the Times for unfairly destroying Witt’s reputation by suggesting he had raped a woman when no charges have been filed, no investigation has taken place and the accuser did not speak to the Times.

The story set off a second simultaneous storm with critics lambasting editors and reporters at the Yale Daily News, accusing the paper of covering for one of their own.

Where the Yale Daily News failed

I talked this weekend with Max de La Bruyère, editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. He said they received a tip about the complaint in the days leading up to the Yale-Harvard game.

“The student who made the complaint chose to make it informally,” he said. “All the parties agreed to confidentiality. Because we wanted to be fair and honor that process, we chose not to pursue it.”

He explained further in a note to readers which was published this weekend.

If The New York Times overstepped its journalistic boundaries in publishing the story, the Yale Daily News fell far short. De La Bruyère said his reporters did not try to interview the woman who filed the complaint. They didn’t seek guidance from anyone on campus with expertise in sexual assault, nor did they ever seek an explanation from Witt.

There’s no telling what would have happened had they pursued the story while it was unfolding. Maybe they would have ended up in the same place, with no story to report. Often journalists go down pathways that lead nowhere.

Yale is one of several Ivy League schools currently under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for the way it handles sexual assaults. Under Title IX legislation, colleges and universities are required to create an environment of equal opportunity for men and women. A college that allows a climate of assault, intimidation or harassment would be guilty of discriminating against women.

Wendy J. Murphy is one of the victims’ rights advocates prompting the Department of Education to investigate the sexual assault investigation practices at Ivy League schools. An adjunct professor at the New England School of Law, she files complaints with the Office of Civil Rights to force the colleges to make changes to their policies. (As one of the nation’s leading experts in sexual abuse, Murphy has taught in Poynter seminars on the topic.)

Yale’s policies weren’t that bad, compared to Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, she said. She filed complaints against Harvard and Princeton with the Office of Civil Rights in the fall of 2010. Stanford was already under investigation. The broad inquiry that resulted was expanded months later to Yale and a few other schools, so that the glare of the spotlight would be on several schools in order “to disperse some of the shame,” Murphy said.

The story about the complaint against Witt reveals a bigger issue, Murphy said. The entire informal process that Yale is using to settle complaints may be improper. Under Title IX, the federal government forbids schools from mediating charges of rape.

“I equate mediating with informal procedure,” she said. “I’m stunned they would do this while being watched so carefully.”

Reporters at the Yale Daily News have covered the changes the university has made in response to the Civil Rights investigation, De La Bruyère told me. And they have. But the paper hasn’t done much to document the existing climate victims face when reporting sexual assault, nor have they editorialized about the need for a rigorous response procedure.

“The Ivies are the worst when it comes to certain aspects of addressing Title IX,” Murphy said. “They tend to obfuscate more than most, and they can be very stubborn in believing they know better than even the Department of Education. I’ve been filing impact litigation against schools for years. It’s particularly effective when an Ivy League school is made to change its ways, because when they get whacked [by the federal government] all the other schools line up to get their policies in shape too.”

Why this matters

Newspapers are powerful institutions in their communities. That is especially true on the campus of a prestigious university. To that end, a paper can be a part of that power structure, or it can keep the power structure in line. Had it been fulfilling its role as a watchdog on the powerful, the Yale Daily News would have followed up on the tip they received that their star quarterback was the subject of a sexual assault complaint.

There’s no telling where that inquiry would lead. It’s possible that reporters would have spotted flaws in the system of fielding sexual assault complaints that allow the most powerful people on campus to avoid scrutiny. It’s possible they would have discovered a system that is truly working and could be a model for other schools.

I’m not suggesting the Yale Daily should have taken a tabloid approach and printed allegations or the rumor of allegation. Rather, while “respecting the confidentiality” of the woman who filed the complaint and Witt, the journalists in the newsroom missed an opportunity to find a story that held a powerful institution accountable on an important issue.

It’s not too late for the Yale Daily News or other student publications. Sexual assault remains a plague on college campuses everywhere. Statistically, college students are at a higher risk of sexual assault than the general population. Student newspapers should be looking for opportunities to explain why this is, to determine if their administrations are in compliance with Title IX, and to educate a widely misinformed audience about the true realities of assault. Read more


Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, addresses a news conference at the Friars Club, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in New York. Bialek accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. She says she wants to provide "a face and a voice" to support other accusers who have so far remained anonymous. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Why did journalists act as a pack in withholding names of Herman Cain’s accusers?

Until today, media covering allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have universally withheld the identities of the women, who did not voluntarily come forward.

Then today, The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad publication, revealed the identity of one woman, in a flattering article that gives credibility to her claims.

That prompted Business Insider and the Daily Caller to follow suit. Shortly after that, NPR confirmed with Karen Kraushaar that she is “woman A,” but she initially declined to say anything more.

Kraushaar spoke with The New York Times Tuesday evening.

She said she did not know whether or how she might tell more of her story but said that she had been warming “to the idea of a joint press conference where all of the women would be together with our attorneys and all of this evidence would consider together.”

Since then, attorneys for the women have been in touch and plans for a joint appearance are progressing.

It’s apparent that Kraushaar’s name was widely known by journalists, but not reported.

This lock-step withholding, then revealing, of information is evidence of a lack of leadership among the ranks of leading news organizations.

There isn’t a journalistic reason to conceal the names of these women. Journalists are not bound by non-disclosure agreements that often accompany legal settlements. These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault. There is no generally accepted school of thought that guides journalists to protect individual privacy in cases like this.

When it comes to rape, which is a felony, there is well-documented research that indicates victims would be even less likely to report attacks to police, if they knew their names would be published. That’s why most newsrooms have policies that discourage publishing the names of rape victims. Sexual harassment is not rape, though certainly it may be humiliating and embarrassing to be the victim of sexual harassment.

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, addresses a news conference at the Friars Club, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in New York. Bialek accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. She says she wants to provide “a face and a voice” to support other accusers who have so far remained anonymous. (Richard Drew/AP)

The newsrooms that originally broke the story, Politico and The New York Times, may have promised the women anonymity in exchange for their interviews. That makes sense.

But other newsrooms, particularly those with the capacity to discover the names of the women, acted in inexplicable unison until today. And they continue even now, reporting only the name that was originally revealed by The Daily, instead of divulging the names of all the women involved.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out in his column last week that many news organizations have staked out the house of one woman who received a settlement. And one TV executive told Calderone, “There’s no journalistic reason not to name them … I think it comes down to a very simple equation: If you name them, the likelihood of your news organization interviewing them probably goes down to zero.”

Many newsrooms may share the hope that if they preserve the women’s anonymity, then maybe those women will grant a personal interview.

In other words, those newsrooms are gambling on the remote chance of getting an exclusive, and sacrificing their duty to give their audience all the relevant information.

The uniformity among news organizations on this particular decision is baffling, given the increasing competition to deliver news to the consumer.

Critics will likely presume a journalism cabal, making decisions together in some back room. It’s not that. Instead, it’s a lack of confidence and leadership in newsrooms. It’s an inability to employ a process that puts the needs of the audience before the needs of the newsroom. It’s the tendency to spend too much time comparing oneself to the competition, and not enough time asking if the work is serving the truth.

I talked about when and why to name accusers in a live chat with Reuters’ Jack Shafer. You can replay the chat here:
<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=77b980c2de” mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=77b980c2de” >Why didn’t journalists name Cain accusers?</a> Read more


Monday, July 18, 2011


Feldman’s ESPN non-suspension follows bad decision-making

The recent flap over Bruce Feldman’s non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (a) a Twitter revolution, (b) an ESPN house of cards, (c) Twitterati gone wild.

In fact, it’s all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we’ve tackled at the Poynter Review Project.

Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:

  • ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead, managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
  • The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
  • Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he’s not saying anything.
  • ESPN officials approved Feldman’s authoring then-Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach’s autobiography, long before Leach was fired by the university and sued ESPN.
  • The previous ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer did a very good job detailing ESPN’s shortcomings in reporting on the Leach controversy, which involved disciplining player Adam James, son of ESPN commentator Craig James. (Thank you, Don, otherwise this column would be a book too.)
  • When Leach filed the lawsuit against ESPN, it’s clear to us that Feldman’s involvement with the book became an impossible conflict. But Feldman failed to seek and the network failed to provide clear guidance.
  • We believe If ESPN had better guidelines on who can write as-told-to books, this whole thing could have been avoided. But there little consensus among top managers on the topic. Instead we see a culture of optimistically searching for a middle pathway, when at times someone just needs to say no.


Bruce Feldman covers the college football beat for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider. He appears on air occasionally, does a weekly online chat and tweets often. He has more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.

In 2007, Feldman signed on to author Leach’s autobiography. At the time, Leach was considered one of the most innovative offensive coaches in college ball. ESPN management granted Feldman permission to do this, Gary Hoenig, general manager of ESPN publishing, told us during a phone interview over the weekend.

In December 2009, Leach and his staff came under criticism from Adam James, who claimed Leach ordered him locked in a closet during practice while he recovered from a concussion. ESPN had assigned Adam James’ father, Craig James, to call Tech games. The network’s reporting on the controversy was highly critical of Leach and out of step with other newsrooms, Ohlmeyer documented.

Texas Tech fired Leach. Leach sued ESPN. Fresh details of that time period emerged in Leach’s book, “Swing Your Sword,” which was widely excerpted last week, offering a fresh look into ESPN’s shortcomings, which ESPN is hamstrung to address because of the pending lawsuit.

A Twitter wildfire

Brooks Melchior first posted the erroneous news of Feldman’s suspension on his blog Sports by Brooks, Thursday afternoon, just hours after ESPN brass, prompted by the book’s publication, met by conference call with Feldman to discuss his involvement. For the past decade, Melchior has been the primary writer and editor on the site, which is now part of the Yardbarker network now owned by Fox Sports.

ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no.

Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.

Feldman did not respond to several emails, text messages and phones calls from us. He has not tweeted or published any stories or appeared on the air, fueling rumors that ESPN is lying and that he really is suspended.

At this point, Feldman’s silence is self-imposed, according to Rob King, ESPN senior vice president of editorial for digital and print media, and Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine.

“He’s paralyzed,” King said. “He doesn’t want to go out to an event and become the subject of the story. But he doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, in order to put the story to bed.”

“He’s pretty anxious about this whole thing,” Millman concurred.

Melchior also refused to comment for this column when we reached him on the phone Sunday. He does not offer his readers any information about his source or how the source came by the knowledge. But ESPN sources said no one in the company got a call from Melchior asking to confirm Feldman’s suspension.

By Thursday night Twitter was buzzing. By Friday #freebruce was trending and dozens of sports bloggers and radio talk show hosts were repeating the information. Our reader mailbag was exploding, as were our personal email accounts, as well as tweets to Poynter.org.

Although many at ESPN were shaking their heads at the Twitterverse, King had a different reaction. “I can’t for one second feel this is a bad thing. People take what they believe and they act,” he said. “Some people would call it a free-for-all. I call it fairly democratic. I just wish that reactions like that would be based on fact.”

Repetition without verification

As news of Feldman’s alleged suspension traveled far and wide, his silence on Twitter made the allegation seem credible. That was all the confirmation most bloggers and tweeters needed. Professional journalists should have a higher standard. However, ESPN has hundreds of people fully engaged in the virtual space and did nothing to immediately correct the inaccuracy.

Part of the problem was time, and part of the problem was communication. ESPN has lots of layers of management.

The book “Swing Your Sword” officially hits the shelves next week. Several news sites excerpted it last week, including Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports.

Most of the excerpts posted late in the day July 12 referenced the chapter in the book that explains Leach’s side of the Adam and Craig James controversy. It was the first hint that ESPN might have yet another complication in the Leach saga.

That meant that July 13, the day of the ESPYs award show, several executives at ESPN saw the excerpts on other sites and started asking questions, including: Who gave Feldman permission to write this book? (Answer: Hoenig, head of ESPN publications, along with the previous editor of ESPN the Magazine.) Did he actually write the book? (Yes, although he is listed as editor.) Did he write that chapter about ESPN? (Yes.) When the controversy between Leach and James arose, what instruction did Feldman receive from ESPN management? (Not very clear instructions, it turns out. We’ll explain.) When Leach sued ESPN, did Feldman reach out to his bosses for further guidance? (No.)

At a company as big as ESPN, with dozens of vice presidents, it’s not surprising that communication is complicated. King, who was recently promoted to a position that includes editorial supervision of the magazine, learned last week for the first time that Feldman was writing the book. Hoenig, head of publications, said he knew all along but had to refresh his memory on what decisions were made. Millman is new to his title, as well, and is still transitioning into the lead magazine editorial role.

Bad decisions

There were two opportunities to make decisions that ESPN missed: before the contract was signed and when Leach filed the lawsuit.

The first decision was whether to let Feldman participate at all in the book. Even though this decision was made before the Leach-James controversy, we can’t overstate what a bad idea we think as-told-to books are for independent journalists. Feldman covers NCAA football. By all accounts he is one of the best reporters on the beat. Leach was arguably one of the most innovative coaches on the job. In order to write the book, Feldman had to assume Leach’s point of view, right down to the cadence of the coach’s speech. How do you do that for a side job, then go back to the independent, more distant point of view for your day job?

Hoenig agrees with us on this. “I don’t think we should let people do as-told-to books in the future,” he said. But King said he doesn’t want to eliminate the possibility. Such books give reporters a chance to deepen their subject-matter expertise, he said.

“It’s complicated,” Millman explained. “You don’t want to limit people’s opportunities. But you don’t want to limit their ability to cover their sport either.”

You can’t have it both ways, as much as ESPN tried. Feldman sought clarity in the spring of 2010, after Leach had been fired but before he filed suit against ESPN. At that point, Hoenig recalls telling Feldman he needed “distance himself” from material about the company.

“We told him, short of getting out of the book you need to remove your name from the book and distance yourself from the book,” Hoenig said. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? This could really harm your career at ESPN.’ ”

“He has a stubborn, and somewhat admirable, moral streak,” Hoenig continued. “I don’t think he took our message the way we intended, which was, ‘This might impair your ability to do your job.’ ”

It was bad advice, unclear and too easily dismissed as a challenge rather than a solution. As a result of that conversation, Feldman and the book publisher changed Feldman’s title from co-author to editor, moving his name off the jacket and onto the title page. That changed the appearance of a conflict but not necessarily the actual conflict.

At the point that Leach filed suit, Feldman should have again sought clarification, but he did not, ESPN executives said. For its part, ESPN should have insisted Feldman walk away from the book and offered him the financial and legal help to do so. The publisher could have brought in another writer/editor to finish the work. Of course, Feldman would have been upset; he’d already put months of work into it, and the book was mostly complete. But the conflict was untenable, and it was ESPN’s responsibility to recognize that.

Feldman did what reporters do: He assumed that truth would keep him safe and that by the time the book was published, everyone at ESPN would agree that the network itself had failed in reporting the Leach-James controversy. And perhaps if “Swing Your Sword” were an independently reported biography instead of an autobiography with a distinct bias, it could have provided the definitive chapter. As it is, the book is merely one more point of view in a muddled narrative where many individuals and institutions failed to live up to their ideals.

What’s next

As the college football season heats up, ESPN must still figure out what Feldman can report on independently. When a reporter has a clear conflict, it’s standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach’s voice, Feldman clearly can’t cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach’s former staffers, who are spread far and wide — some of them now head coaches — make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits? Feldman’s bosses, King and Millman, are still trying to figure that out, which probably explains Feldman’s self-imposed silence.

The Feldman-Leach-James-ESPN chronicles cannot be reduced to a simple point where things went wrong. Some want to spin this story into a David and Goliath tale. Feldman and his supporters take on the giant ESPN with Twitter as their slingshot. Others want it to be a cautionary tale of inaccuracy exploding across the virtual space.

“Everyone wants to portray this as either a staff writer went renegade or Twitter overreacted,” King said Sunday night during a phone interview. “Neither of those are completely accurate and it’s a lot more complex than that.”

Instead, this recent online fracas is a result of cascading decisions that were made with good intentions but without the proper attention to core values and loyalties. Had ESPN put its obligation to bring fans the best independently reported information first, everyone would have recognized that Feldman’s involvement in the book itself was a bad idea — a conflict of interest in the making. That first bad decision was compounded by additional conflicts that surfaced as ESPN reported on the controversy between Leach and a player who was also the son of a powerful ESPN commentator, material that ultimately became a chapter in the book. Feldman’s authorship of the book became untenable when Leach sued ESPN.

We realize no one will be happy with our conclusions, because nearly everyone involved — ESPN the company, individual managers, Bruce Feldman, Brooks Melchior and every journalist who repeated the word “suspension” without verifying the facts — bears some responsibility. ESPN, of course, bears the largest, but not the only, burden.

This post was simultaneously published on ESPN.com as part of the Poynter Review Project. Read more


Thursday, June 30, 2011


Peter Perl: ‘I haven’t been fired or suspended or fined’ for keeping Vargas secret

The Washington Post will reassign some of Peter Perl’s duties, but won’t demote or suspend the assistant managing editor, who knew that Jose Vargas was an undocumented immigrant, but kept it a secret for seven years.

I talked with Perl this week about how he reasoned through his decision to keep Vargas’ revelation quiet, how he weighed his obligation to the reporter against his obligation to his employer, and what has happened since Vargas’ revelations were published in The New York Times Magazine.

Perl was new to upper management when then 24-year-old Vargas revealed his secret. Perl said he interviewed Vargas like he would a source for a story. Then, in his mind, Perl played out the possible outcomes. “I became satisfied that he was really screwed,” he told me by phone.

So Perl swallowed the secret. In doing so, he transferred some of the responsibility — as well as the potential harm — for the decision to himself. Here’s how Perl described that moment in time.

“This was, at the time, not a close call. It was clear to me that I believed that my taking action would have resulted in his losing his job and maybe being deported. And I felt like, at his age and his situation, that as much as I trust the leadership of the Washington Post, they would have been obligated to put in motion a whole series of events that were clearly going to result in real damage to Jose.

And I made a tactical judgment. … it seemed clear to me that he was OK in his current status, he had a valid driver’s license. As long as he didn’t attempt to travel outside the country or get, you know, arrested for a crime, or whatever, he could do this indefinitely…

He basically wanted to unburden himself. I said, ‘You’ve done the right thing, and now it’s like our problem and I’ll take care of it.’ Which was like great, what am I going to do now?”

Perl said he recognized at the time that as a member of senior management, he had an even higher duty to the Post than a member of the rank and file. He was also taking a greater risk. He could have been fired. But he calculated that the harm Vargas would endure was unfair and substantial compared to the possible harm the Post could endure. Although he couldn’t discuss his own personnel issue, he said he felt like his employer had been exceedingly fair.

“I haven’t been fired or suspended or fined or anything like that. I’ve had communication about the fact that the Post thinks that what I did was wrong and that some of my duties should be changed. … People were concerned, ‘Am I going to continue in my present job?’ And the answer is yes. … I think people are — both management and the newsroom — satisfied with that outcome.”

While critics point out that the series of lies Vargas told in order to conceal his legal status undermine his journalistic credibility, Perl rejected the language of absolutes in favor of a framework that examines motives and harm. Had Vargas confessed to a more selfish and damaging deception, Perl said he would have responded differently.

“If you took this entire scenario and you substituted the word plagiarism for illegal immigration or anything that would really reflect on [the mission of] this institution — as opposed to just me — I would have made a different decision. … Let’s say somebody comes and confidentially confesses to me, ‘I’m tormented by this but I made this up,’ …then the confidentiality does not apply.”

The Times posted Vargas’ story a week ago and an immediate firestorm of commentary ensued among media watchers. At first the scrutiny was stressful for Perl, he said. But over time, dozens and dozens of people from both inside and outside The Washington Post have contacted him.

“The volume of responses that I’ve gotten and the depth of the responses have been very moving to me. It’s actually turned from a very stressful thing into, in many ways, a very gratifying thing. I had a guy come in here the other day and say, ‘I just want to shake your hand, I’m proud to work for you.’ Yikes. That was quite amazing. That’s pretty gratifying. And if somebody thinks… ‘What a dumb thing he did,’ no one’s come to tell me that. So from my perspective, the election returns are running very well.”

Listening to Perl describe his reasoning was refreshing. Although he was flying solo when he made the decision to keep Vargas’ secret, he describes a healthy and thorough process. He can articulate the duty that arose from his mentoring relationship with Vargas as well as his duty, as a senior manager, to the Post. He weighed the real and likely harm that would come to Vargas against the possible and lesser harm that he believed would come to the Post.

Perl acknowledges that he put his loyalty to someone he considers a young and promising reporter ahead of his loyalty to the newspaper and that from the Post’s perspective, what he did was wrong.

“…we all confront ethical issues because right and wrong are not black and white and I don’t think there is a right or wrong. There are two rights and two wrongs in the situation as I see it, and I totally get the idea that from the perspective of people that employ me what I did was wrong.”

He admits that beyond the legal consequences of employing an undocumented worker, he couldn’t quite see all the potential harm the Post might suffer.

“With the reporting I did, I was reasonably satisfied that my inaction would not hurt anyone. I knew there was a risk, but I believed my inaction was going to remain invisible.”

Ultimately, there was no way that Perl could honor his moral obligations to both Vargas and the Post. He chose to protect Vargas. Now that the secret is out, he can admit that he put his organization in harm’s way, and defend his decision to do so. Read more