Journalists, nurses in ethical dust-up

I’m not altogether sure I understand the fury from the Minnesota Nurses Association (by way of David Brauer’s blog at MinnPost) over the fact a meeting the nurses had was closed to the press, but the Strib inflitrated.

According to David:


The latest flashpoint is a Strib story that includes quotes from what the MNA says was a closed-to-the-press union membership meeting Wednesday. The piece, written by Josephine Marcotty and Chen May Yee, includes passages such as:

One nurse stood up and said, “I’m a young nurse and I talk to a lot of young nurses.” She said she was worried that some would cross the picket line.

MNA spokesman John Nemo says the media organizations were informed via press release that the meeting was closed.

I’m probably old school here but I’m inclined to respond, “so what?” It’s the job of reporters to find information and that’s what the Star Tribune did. Did they break the law to get it? Not that I can tell. Did they get the story wrong? That doesn’t appear to be the contention.

Far more troubling are two other parts of Brauer’s story. One in which the nurses union spokesman seems to acknowledge he’d already been favoring certain media outlets over another. And one in which a TV reporter seems more than willing to accept information crumbs as the nurses are willing to provide them.


In any event, Nemo vows payback. “I told the Strib I’m cutting them out of the scoops. On Monday, they’ll have to wait for the strike vote. I’m giving it to [Pioneer Press reporter] Jeremy Olson first.”

He makes even that sound charitable: “We don’t need the mainstream media to tell our story. We built our whole campaign around social networking — 10,000 fans on Facebook, and MNAblog.com gets 8-10,000 hits a day. It’s not 1988 any more.”

Ethical? One can’t very expect the media to sit and wait for spoon-fed information from one side in a labor dispute, when the people dispensing that information are favoring some media over the other.

Better to just get the information on your own. You know, like reporters do.

As for the need for mainstream media, it’s true. It’s not 1988 anymore and the nurses don’t need mainstream media to get their information out to nurses, but they do need the mainstream media if they’re engaged in a fight for the public’s hearts and minds, which they are.

Someday, perhaps, the majority of the not-involved-in-nursing-or-hospitals general public will browse YouTube videos and Web site blogs to get these morsels on their own, but that’s not a reality of 2011.

As penetrating as “new media” has become in our daily lives, it hasn’t come close to carrying the influence the old guard still wields. Like it or not, that’s simply a fact.

It’s understandable that in a contentious labor situation, cooler heads aren’t likely to prevail when it comes to relationships with the media. The communications individuals have a job to do: To get their story told, preferably just the way they want it.

But that’s not the job of journalists. If there are elements of the story that are wrong, a reporter’s head should be fair game. Attribution, not insinuation, belongs in news stories. Clearly, two sides (or more) of a particular story should be told. But increasingly, the definition of bias among the communications professionals is that another point of view saw the light of day.

Look at another situation, the oil spill in the Gulf. Other than actually breaking the law, at what point should reporters stop trying to get the full story, rather than just the one BP wants told?

  • christopher
  • wjcstp

    Crap like this only underline the importance of having professional journalists who can apply some perspective and balance to telling the news story. Social media is fine, but also subject to manipulation and an outsized sense of importance. There will always be a need for objective reporters, no matter what the media landscape looks like.

  • jonm

    What if a nurse actually called and “leaked” information to a reporter?

  • MR

    From Brauer’s post, quoting the STrib reporter Josephine Marcotty, “I stepped into the room to see if the meeting was still going on.”

    So if MNA wanted a closed meeting, why didn’t they put someone next to the door asking non-nurses to stay out?

  • pat norha

    After being informed that a meeting is closed to all but members of a certain group, do all persons who are not part of the designated group have an ethical obligation (no matter how non-brutish it may be) not to attend? If so, are reporters exempt from such an obligation in the name of we want our paper to make it financially, or its counterpart euphemism: “the public’s right to know,” or is it just another attempt to maintain a public image (no matter how self-delusional it may be) that the S.Trib. has the power to sway or influence public opinion?

    The story’s content loses its credibility by the way in which it was gotten.

  • MR

    I should have pulled Marcotty’s full quote:

    “I went to the nurses meeting at Fairview about 8:30 a.m., which is when the meeting was supposed to end. I stepped into the room to see if the meeting was still going on. (There were no windows.) I stayed for a few minutes, long enough to hear the two comments I used. I left and waited outside to talk to nurses. I introduced myself as a Star Tribune reporter to everyone I talked to. Only one nurse declined to speak with me.”

  • Bob Collins

    //After being informed that a meeting is closed to all but members of a certain group, do all persons who are not part of the designated group have an ethical obligation (no matter how non-brutish it may be) not to attend? If so, are reporters exempt from such an obligation in the name of we want our paper to make it financially, or its counterpart euphemism: “the public’s right to know,” or is it just another attempt to maintain a public image (no matter how self-delusional it may be) that the S.Trib. has the power to sway or influence public opinion? The story’s content loses its credibility by the way in which it was gotten. //

    My view: If I attend a meeting and I’m not misrepresenting who I am and you throw me out, I’ll leave without a fuss. But if you say ahead of time — I’ll call it prior restraint — that I can’t be somewhere, I don’t believe I have any ethical duty to follow your instructions.

    To me, it has nothing to do with “the people’s right to know,” it has to do with whether I trust ME determining what happened at a meeting vs. someone else — with an interest in filtering — what happened.

    Here’s another scenario: What if I gave a nurse a tape recorder to tape record what happened in a meeting. Is that ethical? I’d certainly have to think about it.

    News gathering SHOULD be adversarial with those who are being covered. That’s just the way it is. It’s a battle between people who want to control how a story is told, and those who want to tell it a different way.

    Hopefully, that never changes.

  • http://norwegianity.wordpress.com Mark Gisleson

    I honestly can’t argue with you about this Bob. The MNA should have had people at the door checking credentials. Any reporter trying to sneak into an industrial union’s contract negotiation meetings with its membership would have been “physically” removed from the premises.

    I would, however, ask you to show me any reporting on this strike from any Minnesota news outlet that includes any corporate information not provided by corporate press flacks. How many reporters have successfully covered closed hospital board meetings?

    Obviously it’s easier for the hospitals to keep their deliberations secret because fewer people are involved. What insights have these reporters given us into the MNA and their members? Simply by agreeing to speak to reporters those few members interviewed showed themselves to be atypical members.

    I was a member of an industrial union from 1973-1982. During that time I walked out at least five times as part of a strike/coordinated work stoppage. Not once did our local newspaper give our side of the story. Usually the strike was ignored as much as possible, and when reported on it was always in the context of the company’s unchallenged spin.

    MPR would provide an enormous service to this community if you would just simply give us two detailed reports: one factchecking the hospitals, the other factchecking the unions.

    That’s the kind of thing I think of when I think of adversarial reporting.