Cubs Fan Goes Public; Ethical Issue Shifts

Post-game update: I wrote the column below with the headline “Naming Cubs Fan an Error” late Wednesday afternoon.  It challenged the decision by the Chicago Sun-Times and others to publish the name of the fan who got in the way of a Cubs outfielder who was trying to catch a foul ball in game six of the National League playoff series. The circumstances changed later when the fan issued a public statement. Steven Bartman, 26, said: “I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cub fan’s broken heart.”

I’m still troubled by those decisions earlier Wednesday to name him and, in some cases, to shine an excessively bright light of scrutiny on him.

But by going public himself, Bartman shifted the issue away from the question of whether news organizations should name him. Now that he has stepped forward and expressed regret, it’s appropriate for journalists both to identify him and to reflect the tenor of his remarks fairly. The issue has shifted from the queston of identification to the need for measured and respectful coverage. 

It’s not simply a matter of getting the facts right. Our professionalism demands that we balance legitimate news value against the potentially harmful consequences of our coverage. That’s what good ethical decision-making is all about. We should put in perspective both what Bartman did and how he might suffer. Given the circumstances, he is still susceptible to a range of retaliation. There is no journalistic purpose served by heightening his vulnerability.

Let’s tell his story in a measured, respectful way.   

Sure, I’m a Cubs fan and I was bleeding Cubbies blue when they self-destructed in the 8th inning of game six of the National League playoffs. And, yep, I was upset with “THE PLAY” that rattled Wrigley.

But I see no justifiable purpose for a public pillorying of the fan who got in the way of Cubs’ outfielder Moises Alou’s attempt to snare that foul ball down the left field line. And I see no journalistic purpose for naming the guy, even if his action is the talk of the town.

The Chicago Sun-Times has named the chap who reached up for the ball as it flew into the first row of seats, perhaps keeping Alou from catching the ball for the second out of the inning. In fact, the Sun-Times has gone so far as to name the fan’s employer.

Chicago Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke told Editor and Publisher that his paper went with the fan’s name because “It is the biggest news story in town and this is Chicago. We talked about it for a little while and came down on the side of publishing it. It was not 100 to 0, but the decision was made and on we go.”

It’s easy for Cooke and his Sun-Times journalists to say “on we go.” But it won’t be easy for that fan to go on with his life. Not only did he have to put up with considerable verbal abuse at Wrigley before he was escorted out by security for his own safety, but it’s reasonable to recognize that he is still in some jeopardy. At the least, he’ll receive a barrage of criticism. He’ll likely get nasty phone calls and condemning letters. Someone who is particularly mean-spirited may even target him for a punch in the chops.

The Chicago Tribune’s Dan McGrath, assistant managing editor for sports, told Poynter Online that he “argued against naming” the fan. “He didn’t do anything criminal. Not even anything wrong,” McGrath said.

I agree. The fan was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The foul ball flew right at him. It was a natural instinct to reach up for the ball, something dozens of fans do at the ballpark every game when a foul ball goes into the stands. Sure, I’ll bet this fan wishes he could wind back the clock, and he would be diving backwards to avoid the leaping Alou. But there is no way he could have anticipated Alou leaping like he did high over the wall and reaching into the first row of seats.

He deserves some compassion in this case.

By early Wednesday evening, the fan had issued a statement declaring, “I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cub fan’s broken heart.” The Tribune included the statement in a story posted to its Web site, but did initially not name the fan.

(Later, the newspaper named the fan and inserted the following explanation: “The Tribune did not identify the fan earlier today on this web site or in Tuesday’s print edition. The newspaper is publishing his name now because Bartman issued a statement that explained his actions and apologized.”)

Earlier Wednesday, the Tribune’s McGrath told us: “The guy is a young adult trying to get his life together. The level of passion Cubs fans feel … inflates those passions. I hate to see this guy get hurt. There are enough crazy people out there who might be a threat to him.”

That’s the crux of this issue as a matter of news judgment and ethical decision-making. It’s about balancing our role of telling every detail of a story against what harm might occur when we do so.

In this case, the value of naming this fan just doesn’t carry enough weight compared to the potential negative consequences. He didn’t break any laws. He wasn’t unethical. He didn’t steal the catcher’s signs to the pitcher and relay them to the opponents. He didn’t yell obscenities at the bullpen pitchers. He didn’t intentionally harm someone. All he did was react just as most fans would at that moment. He’s already paid a big price for his error.

He doesn’t deserve to be pilloried by the press and the public.

[ What do you think? ]

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