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Penn State Live
|Gene Foreman - March 2009|
Gene Foreman March 2009 on Ethical Decisionmaking
Interviewer: Placement seems to be a big issue when it comes to these kinds of photos, because I guess that a lot of parents feel like kids aren’t likely to go paging through the paper, but they will see what’s on the front page. I know it may be worthwhile talking about the American soldier who was dragged through the streets in Mogadishu—I remember reading that when that photo moved across the wires that editors were having a meeting at the time and they were quickly polled about how they would handle it. I think about one-third said front page in color. One-third said black and white inside, and one third said they wouldn’t use it at all. I always think about that. That sort of epitomizes what is so difficult about making ethical decisions is to have such a perfect split about how to handle a piece of news. If we could talk about the background of that case and how you think that one should be handled.
Foreman: Yes, I’m with the group that thinks it should be run. There was a major local story at the time that dominated our front page. We did run it inside, and I think that on a normal day we probably would have run it somewhere on the front. That was a story that A, we knew it would offend; B, we thought it was extremely important.
Interviewer: Maybe for the tape, if you could describe the background.
Foreman: Yes, we were trying to help the people of Somalia through a drought and famine; sending supplies in there. The country had no functioning government and there was a constant battle between the warlords. In this context, our soldiers got caught up in a firefight and a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down and one of the soldiers in the helicopter was killed in the ensuing gun fight. His body was dragged through the street with people jeering in Mogadishu. Its influence, I think, the picture and of course the event itself, President Clinton decided that we would pull our troops out and that while we wanted to help in distributing the food, we also didn’t want our soldiers killed. There was tremendous hostility to our being there among certain groups. So the fact that it was later shown to have influenced policy only reinforces our belief that we did the right thing in running the picture. Sometimes people have to see things that are troubling to them in order for us to tell them here’s what’s going on. It’s a fine line and I think in the Dwyer case, we went over that line by retrospective. In the Mogadishu case I don’t think we did.
Interviewer: What about the counter argument though that a photo like that is so inflammatory in a way, that as soon as people see it, maybe they stop looking at the bigger policy issue and just say no we don’t want that to happen to any of our soldiers. Let’s get them all out of there. So it’s kind of like if you show a photo of a plane crash, it obscures the fact that most planes land safely. You know what I mean? You’re seeing the very worst of it, and that’s what creates this deep impression in people’s minds. So it’s hard for them to retain a more nuanced, balanced, or complex view.
Foreman: Well, I think that’s a judgment that people had to make. We’re giving them the information. I don’t think that we should shy from running that picture because people might be very, very angry about that and maybe Clinton should have stayed in Somalia; I don’t know. The fact is that there was a lot of public pressure to get out. Just as you said, that influenced policy. But I don’t think that’s manipulative on our part. If we say well we’re going to pull our punches because it may be a policy that we may not approve of. I think that we have to be neutral on that and say that we give them the information and let people decide hopefully what they want to do.
Interviewer: So while we’re on this subject, I was also thinking about the difference between local upsetting photographs and ones from far away. One instance in particular that epitomizes this issue was when the Centre Daily Times ran an accident photo several years ago. A Penn State student was crossing Garner Street and Beaver Avenue and she got hit by a bus. The photo was not graphic at all. You could just see her legs and that was about it. The day before, they ran a really bloody photo from a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. There was no uproar. The switchboard did not light up about the suicide bombing photo, and it did light up about the Penn State student photo. So what does that tell us about how people respond to the newspaper and in terms of making decisions about those kinds of photos?
Foreman: Yeah, I remember that photograph with the schoolbus and you could see rescue workers working over what presumably was the student’s body. I showed it to my ethics classes at Penn State as an example of how even though the picture was not particularly gory, it’s still offensive because it’s local. The point you made is absolutely true. Sherman Williams, the photo editor of the Milwaukie Journal Sentinel, speaks to that in my book about how local does make a difference. Often people, readers will know the person involved and will react personally to that. I think that the point you made about there being a very gory picture from Jerusalem attracted almost no reaction and then there’s a local picture, not gory, but symbolic. You can tell a tragedy occurred and it did attract a lot. So this is just one of many factors I think that journalists have to consider in making their decisions. It goes in the first part of that two step decision- making process as to what degree do you think people will be offended. Then you go on to the other question; do they really need to see this from a news point of view. My view on the bus thing anticipated the kind of reaction you’d get. There wasn’t a whole lot of argument for using that picture. It was simply not a remarkable picture under any circumstances.
Interviewer: So is there a meaningful distinction to be made also between pictures that have to do with public policy issues and public tragedies vs. a private one? There are things we need to think about and decide when we come to the photo from Somalia as opposed to a car accident. There’s no really public policy issue there. Although I suppose you could always argue, and I know people do make this argument, that every photo of an accident is a reminder for people to be careful. So in that sense, it’s considered as useful.
Foreman: Right; and there’s validity to that. I think it can be overused if you simply want to get a picture in because it’s a remarkable picture. This is not the way decisions ought to be made, but we’re human and if we really want to run this picture because it’s such a spectacular picture. Then we back up and try to justify it. It’s not good decision making. So while it can be argued that it does affect public policy for the better showing how accidents can happen and how they might have been prevented. I can recall the Stanley Forman picture of a fire escape collapse in Boston. It shows the two people; a nineteen-year-old woman and a three or four year old girl that she was babysitting plunging. The woman was killed and the girl fell on top of her. A lot of people, of course, objected to that. I think that the fact that it really showed the danger of fire escapes, that in this case that had not been inspected in a long time, that we need to tighten up laws in Boston, and they did indeed tighten it up and other cities followed suit. So there is validity to that.
I also say, to answer another part of your question, that if something is a private as opposed to a public person; an ordinary person involved in a tragedy, people are going to react very strongly. So local and private versus somewhere else and in public are two distinctive factors that journalists need to learn to factor in when making their determination of whether people will be offended or not. I can recall at the Inquirer we had a dramatic picture of a little girl who had been in a car wreck being extricated by the firefighters. It was a heroic thing, and she was alive, but that night she died. Our night crew was alert to check on her condition and get the fact that she died, but unfortunately they should have reconsidered the photograph at the time. We caught a lot of flak for running that picture because the girl died. If she had lived, I think people would have agreed that it was a great picture, but since she died, in their view, and again something you have to be concerned about is that this changes the situation. So the dramatic picture of the firefighter with the mangled, dead body of a child in Oklahoma City defied all of those rules except that in most cases it was not local; we ran it in Philadelphia. People understood. We got virtually no complaints about running that picture. I do not see myself as a hero in this thing, but the news desk was saying that we’re not going to run this picture and I said we are. This is really a good picture. It encapsulates the entire story right here. You look at the fireman’s face; it was just disgusted or forlorn that this happened and he was not able to do anything. So occasionally there are situations like that. When I asked Sherman Williams at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about that, and he said it was the enormity of the thing that people understood. Now if it was just a single death, they might not have accepted that picture in my opinion.
Interviewer: So what about this? I got a complaint one year after Oklahoma City when we ran the same photo on the one year anniversary. People said; the person who called - an interesting point – she said I understand why it was important and newsworthy right when it happened, but why do we need to see it again a year later? Do you have a response to that?
Foreman: Yes, I think that it ought to be a part of our process to think about what we do on anniversaries. If it’s a local event, the family is still here, and we have to consider the effect on that family, saying this notorious automobile accident in which say five kids were killed after their senior prom, there are going to be five families that are going to be seared once again by this. I think that we have to be very careful on anniversary pictures and stories. You know I can recall the planes, the second plane crashing into the tower on 9/11. Did they have to show it over and over that day? I mean surely not everybody would have seen it live, but I think that they really learned a lot from that, the television networks. You don’t show something like that over and over and over.
Interviewer: Well, speaking of 9/11, if you had been making decisions in the newsroom about the photos of people jumping out of the windows at the World Trade Center. How would you have handled those, because one thing I remember is first those did run on inside pages and pretty much only ran once and not again? The European papers ran those photos much more liberally than the American papers did. Again it’s this issue of distance.
Foreman: Distance and culture probably, but I don’t want to presume to be an expert on that. But they were reading their customers differently than maybe we read ours. I would have run that picture inside of the New York Times and it is in my book in Chapter 18 or 19 about would you run this picture, and I remember Tom Brokaw saying afterwards we should have covered that aspect of it. And indeed they should have. This is an aspect, as horrific as it is, people making a choice to die by jumping rather than by burning. It simply told a story that was horrific from the beginning. There’s no way to spare the people what happened that day. But I don’t think it needed to be on the front page because there were other images that were more descriptive of the whole event. But somewhere that’s an aspect of the story that had to be covered.
Interviewer: How much should we worry about the reactions of specific families to a tragic piece of news when we’re trying to communicate with this large mass audience? I think of the recent controversy over the photo of the soldier killed in Iraq where the AP went to the family to tell them that they were going to run this photo and the family asked them not to and they went ahead and ran it any way. Then there’s this debate about why this photo was important. What do you think about that issue?
Foreman: Well, I think that sometimes, not in a callous way, but we do disregard what the family said. Back up and say you were a local paper the size of the Centre Daily Times and on the one year anniversary you want to show the car wreck that killed five local young people, then I think you do worry about the families a lot more than you would in this particular case where they were trying to let the family know that we’re going to run the picture. In the process they had gotten the request please don’t run it, and they ultimately decide to run it any way. I can see where they could make that decision, and I can see where it would be unpopular, but I think that sometimes that happens.
Interviewer: Well, maybe we should leave the world of a photo-journalism discussion. The Budd Dwyer case also calls to mind changing standards when it comes to covering suicides. In your experience, how has coverage of suicides changed over the decade that you’ve been involved and where do you think we are now?
Foreman: I think that suicide is a very difficult question, and it’s on several levels. I think that I can flatly say that it’s generally not a big story. It’s tragic, but rarely is it made a big deal over. The Dwyer case, leaving aside the question about that particular picture, certainly met all the requirements for being an exception to the rules. It was public; it involved a public official; one who had been convicted; everything said that this is outside the normal restraint about suicide. So unless the person is extraordinarily important that he’s passing from this earth and needs to be noted for its news value, and unless the suicide is public, or both, generally suicide is not a story, much at all. So the question that comes up is that I don’t think you should glamorize the suicide. A person stands on a building for an hour and draws a crowd and then jumps. I think we have to be very subdued about it; we don’t want to have copycats. There’s a good report out by experts on how the media can help and they are very concerned if we make the committing of suicide appear to be glamorous or a reaction to a single bad event. As an example they use, boy 10 killed himself over bad grades. Their point is that nearly everybody who commits suicide has a mental illness that is either undiagnosed or untreated or both. They also don’t think we should run a lot of details about how a suicide took place. I have no trouble accepting the restraint on suicide. There’s one that I continue to debate among myself and talking with other journalists about it and that is in running a routine obituary that happens to be a suicide, do you put the cause of death in there? A lot of papers don’t and I worry about that because a lot of people know the person shot himself and they may figure the paper suppresses other news as well. A group of community newspapers in New England years ago decided they would say cause of death: suicide. What they found in hearing the wishes of the family, the medical examiner would not include the cause of death. So, they were foiled by the authorities, and nobody seemed to appreciate what they were trying to do, which is to simply be honest. They give other causes of death so they should give this one as well. There is no answer to that that I’ve found because I know from personal experience how traumatizing it is for a person in the family to have it in the paper even though friends already know. Having in the paper that their son or daughter committed suicide makes a big difference.
Interviewer: What about the argument that not reporting suicide as cause of death kind of perpetuates the stigma in the same way that not reporting sex crimes, victims of sex crimes, perpetuates the stigma and that conversely reporting a suicide as cause of death promotes awareness and may prevent suicides down the road?
Foreman: The experts that I consulted in writing my book feel that we are right about the phenomenon of suicide; how to recognize warning signs, and what to do if you think someone close to you is suicidal—that we ought to write about the problem rather than about specific individuals. Again this causes us to kind of shift gears; it’s not the usual way we think we focus on an event, but I think there’s a lot of merit up to that.
Interviewer: So what about sex crimes? I know Michael Gartner famously argues that we should break with the tradition of withholding names of victims of sex crimes and Gena Overholser had made that argument as well. How do you feel about that?
Foreman: Well, Gena’s paper, the Des Moines Register Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for telling its story about a woman who had been raped, but she gave her permission. It wouldn’t have been written if she hadn’t have given her permission. I think that there are exceptions that most of us would make if the person involved, the victim, wants to go public. We would not be bothered by reporting it. We’re not going to deny. Now, if the victim is under age and the parents are not in agreement, and that comes up in a case study in the book, I think you’d have to think twice about that. I think they’re not making the decision about themselves, but about another party. They may not be aware of the affects of publicity that we in the business might be aware of. So I think that generally speaking, though, I’m on the side, and say so in my textbook that while I see merit in the argument to the contrary, I think that I would continue not to routinely run victims of sex crimes because of the stigma and because I think as a matter of public policy to the extent that a lot of us don’t think about is that it would only cause more rapes to not be reported. I think that’s intuitive. You can figure that out for yourself. You don’t need empirical evidence. But I certainly think we have an obligation to those accused of rape to follow their cases through and be very clear that if they’re acquitted to make sure that gets prominently reported as well. Again, it is not a perfect world, and the sex crime identification is one that has no perfect answer.
Interviewer: Well, let’s turn to Nancy Phillips and the case famously known as the ‘Reporter and the Hit Man’. I think there’s a case where my students don’t seem terribly sympathetic to the idea that keeping a promise to a source who is a murderer seems all that compelling and that this is a potentially dangerous person and that therefore she should have gone to the cops as soon as she confessed to her. Could you provide some of the background on that case and then talk about what the issues are?
Foreman: Well, Nancy Phillips is a very good reporter who followed the case of the bludgeoning death of a Rabbi’s wife in Cherry Hill. She, like police, expected that the Rabbi may have arranged the murder of his wife, but like the police, she did not have proof of it. But for five years, she followed the story and one of the people she pursued was Len Jenoff. She had interviewed him many times and he told her off the record that he and another man had committed the crime and that they were acting at the request of the Rabbi who had paid them to do it. She did not report it immediately to authorities. For four and a half months she kept this to herself. She also told her editor, which is part of our policy at the Inquirer that you inform the editor about off the record conversations that might be pertinent, and this certainly was. In consultation with her editors, they concurred with her feeling that A, it was off the record; B is that Jenoff, who had already been shown to be a notorious habitual liar. If she reported to the police, he then would of course probably deny it and maybe the police would not do anything, then she would be in jeopardy; retribution from him. So she then stepped out of her role as reporter and actively lobbied him to go to the authorities. She saw that as the only way really to solve the problem. She wanted the authorities to know what she had, but she didn’t feel that she could tell the story herself.
So finally he relented. He also allowed her to tell the whole story and she wrote a first person story. She was now a participant in the story she uncovered and explained everything from A to Z as it happened and then she and her editor decided that she would never cover that story again. I think all those decisions were right. But a lot of people feel, though, as you mentioned, that she should have told authorities immediately and I think that the dangers that I saw in that, quite aside from the fact that we want people to continue telling us things that they may or may not want to tell the police, that we’re not an arm of the police. We’re not opposed to what the police do, but we don’t think it’s our job to do their work for them and that we should report on them independently, part of that is being seen by everyone as our own people are acting independently. I think the public is much better off because we are able to gather information like that, but it does present a situation. I think that there would have been an exception if he said I’m going to kill the Rabbi or somebody. Now we would have a situation where a crime was about to be committed and she has information. I think that you’ve got to go to the police then. I have not asked Nancy about that, but I feel confident that she would agree. I would also refer that in legally recognized, confidential relationships like a priest or a doctor, they would be obliged to try to head off a crime that is likely to occur as opposed to one that had already occurred, which applied in this case.
Interviewer: What if he had just gone ahead and killed somebody else just during those four months? The outcry against the newspaper would have been fierce.
Foreman: Probably; although he didn’t say that. He didn’t say I’m going to kill some more people. There was no reason for her to think that he was going to kill more people.
Interviewer: Although if a guy would commit a murder for hire, why wouldn’t he do it again? It’s not like it was a crime of passion.
Foreman: Well, it is a fairly complex case, but he had a longtime relationship with the Rabbi and there’s no evidence that she saw that he had a similar relationship with somebody else who might want him to do a crime. That’s an eventuality that fortunately we didn’t have to face, but I would agree that we would have got a bad press if that had happened.
Interviewer: What about the Richard Jewell case? That’s one where I think the lesson my students get from this—I’m not sure it’s the correct one, is that we should just not name people as suspects until they have been arrested because you damage their reputations and for all you know, as with the case with Richard Jewell, they are totally innocent of the crime. Could you provide some background on that case and the issues surrounding that?
Foreman: OK, in 1996, the summer Olympics, which were in Atlanta, there was a crowd at a party in a park and Richard Jewell was a private security guard stationed at the park. Authorities received a call saying that in I think, twenty minutes a bomb would go off in that park. Richard Jewell is actually helping move people away from that. He spotted, pointed out a satchel to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation people. The bomb did go off and one person was killed and over one hundred were injured in one degree or another. A couple days later numerous police sources told the police reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Richard was now a suspect. The first one who told said you can’t use it. The reporter wisely said but if I get it corroborated from other sources then I’m free to write, and he said yes. Well later on it was estimated by the F.B.I. that about five hundred law enforcement people in Atlanta knew about Richard Jewell being looked at, so it’s not surprising that she got two or three other people confirming it. So they decided to do a story. Ultimately, they did a story two days later that said that Jewell, “hero guard” is now a suspect. I admire the coverage of the Olympics by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and also the years running up to it. They did a tremendous job, but they were under great pressure not to be scooped. I think that they ran this maybe a day or two early, but I don’t disagree with their using it before Jewell was charged. He was never charged. He was ultimately cleared, and a bomber later confessed to having done it. He is now serving a life sentence. So Jewell went through three months of hell because people thought that he did it and of course even after he was cleared by the F.B.I. that fall, a lot of people still believed he did it. You and I went to a public appearance by Jewell here at Penn State in which he told, in a poignant way, that he was sitting with his mother and they were watching Tom Brokaw and Tom Brokaw was saying that I believe they have enough on Jewell to arrest him right now. Richard said his mother turned to him and believed that maybe he did. It’s made quite an impact on all of us. To consider whether we should ever run a story about a suspect who is not named, I think, is something you have to be very, very careful about. First thought would be you’re harming this person if indeed the person was not guilty as Jewell was not. Second is, and now we get into an area of law, it could be libelous. So you’d want to protect yourself and you certainly would want to protect innocent people. But there are going to be rare occasions where it’s a high profile case and it’s quite evident that someone is a suspect and that you would only be putting your head in the sand if you pretend that the person has not been identified.
Interviewer: Like O.J. Simpson, for example.
Foreman: Yes, so the next day the F. B. I., with a search warrant, would search his home and that’s a public spectacle. I think that you would have a story then no matter what. The problem with the Jewell story is that you can’t read it without assuming that the editor and reporter involved, reporters plural, thought that Jewell was guilty. That’s something that we should not do. The story never said Jewell is not charged. The story never said that police did not produce any physical evidence to link him to the crime. There are innumerable other passages of the story that reveal a bias in saying that police had now gotten the right man. They say that Jewell is a former deputy sheriff at such and such county in Georgia, where he had bomb training. I tell my students that he probably also had first-aid training. Why don’t they mention that? Well the answer is they want you to connect the dots. These are good journalists, but in my view, from the standpoint of retrospect, they made a number of mistakes in that story. The problem, in my opinion, was not naming Jewell, perhaps naming before they should, but certainly not being careful to point out the arguments against him being the guy, too.
Interviewer: So my students are also very protective of people’s privacy in general, and I think they think that reporters are routinely poking their noses where they don’t belong and they don’t see what the compelling public interest is in knowing the details of people’s private lives and this brings us to the Arthur Ashe case. I’ve been teaching that case for twelve years now and I still think that’s a really hard one. I was wondering if you could talk about that one and what the issues are and where you come down on that case. Maybe you’ll convince me of one way at last after all this time.
Foreman: I don’t know if I can do that. But, yeah, I included that in the book even though it is a dated case study because I think it’s a classic, and as you say, we still battle over it. I had an opportunity to correspond emails back and forth with two of the editors involved, Peter Pritchard, who is the editor of USA Today, and Gene Policinski, who is A&E’s assistant managing editor for sports, who made the decisions. They feel that they made it very clear to Ashe that while they think it’s a story, they would not republish it unless they got It from an authoritative source. An authoritative source would be someone who is family or his doctors. Ashe, nevertheless, went public and he may have, and it’s totally speculation, now he may have felt that USA Today has set very high standards and I don’t think my doctor or my wife are going to tell USA Today or the next paper. This just shows that it’s now being talked about and it’s a matter of time until somebody breaks the story. So I think that USA Today had certain standards for their sources and probably would not have broken the story first, even though they wanted to. But we go back then; should we want to? Clearly it’s a story that everybody would read. This is a non-ethical value.
Ashe was one of the premier athletes of his time and we teach students now, who were very little when Ashe was around, so they don’t really remember him. But they can relate hypothetically with somebody who’s a prominent athlete today or former athlete, retired athlete. If they did the same, had AIDS, would that be a story? They could understand, yes, but they think that is something that people would be interested in. That’s just the threshold. Are people going to be interested in reading it? That’s the non-ethical value. We can give them something that they will see us as a good source, maybe come back every day for more information about whatever. So we need to deliver stories like that, but conversely, though, Ashe is asking for privacy and here is a dying man who is making kind of a last request of his time on earth to live in peace and quiet and to not have everybody knowing about his illness. Remember that Ashe contracted H.I.V. through a blood transfusion and he got the blood transfusion before they started checking for H.I.V. Since they have been checking for H.I.V., there have been almost no cases in which people have contracted H.I.V. through the blood supply. So was there a practical reason for saying there maybe problems with blood supply? That seemed to me that you would lead readers down the wrong path.
So it only comes down to, in my opinion, does Ashe have, as a celebrity, any area of privacy? I think he does, but I think a lot of people in my newsroom said are you crazy? This is a story. This is what we do—a story. I think I would have had a hard time explaining even to other journalists, because this is clearly a story that people would be interested in. If you don’t run it, we say you’re going to be beat. I don’t think that’s a good ethical argument, but I do think that if we’re ethical, we ought to be in it for a time we’re going to lose good stories because we’re following the ethics and not just the ethical when it’s convenient to be ethical. There are benefits to being perceived as ethical but occasionally you’re going to lose a story. I think this is one that we’ve lost. I also think that it would have come out, but that does not justify it. I don’t rob a bank because somebody else might rob a bank. So I shouldn’t run a story just because someone else might. When we talk in class, this would be to lower yourself to your least ethical competitor making that your standard in this case, and that can’t be defended on logical ethical ground.
So I would not have run it and Peter Pritchard points out, absolutely right, it seems almost quaint now that we were discussing this and the Internet and the blogs such as Sarah Palin’s daughter being pregnant coming out almost, what ,a couple of days after she becomes the vice presidential nominee? Whether we like it or not, if we decide the public doesn’t need to know this, we honor Arthur’s request, that it will come out a lot sooner. I think we still owe it to our readers to try to be responsible and in the book there’s a point of view about how the Internet does these things, but if you read what you see in the blogs about Sarah Palin’s daughter and what you read in newspapers and see on broadcasts, there is on our side, the mainstream media, responsibility and sticking to facts, not speculating, and so there’s a difference.