I’ve got a secret

Let’s suppose you saw a boatload of people overturn not far from shore. You could save their lives by wading out a short distance. Would you do it? It’s a no-brainer. Of course you would.

So does it say something about the problem with the journalistic community that it caused some outrage in 1979 when the late Ed Bradley, who was covering the boat people escaping from Vietnam, waded into the water to help people get to shore after Malaysians on the beach started stoning them? There’s a clip of it here if you can stand waiting for the commercial to end.

“You shouldn’t get involved in the story,” was some of the milder criticism. To the journalism community’s credit, the criticism died down after the documentary won just about every award for journalism.

I’m reminded of the Bradley story because an incident in Ohio this week shows that there’s still a mentality that it’s ethical for journalists not to get involved in certain stories, even if people get hurt because of that conviction.

The way my blogging friend, Dave Gamble, tells it, the reporters and editors at the Columbus Dispatch newspaper got a tip that Skybus Airlines would go belly-up at midnight earlier this month. Sensing a story, the paper bought tickets and…

They didn’t tell any of the passengers departing on flights on the last day of the company’s operations that their trips were now involuntarily one-way. In other words, they knowingly and deliberately allowed passengers to get on an airplane and fly hundreds of miles away without telling them that they would be stranded with no way back….

Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison confirmed in his column earlier this week that his reporters were not allowed to tell anyone that they were about to be stranded far from home:

But because we agreed to the 9:30 embargo, (Reporter Amy) Saunders was told to keep quiet about the looming airline shutdown. Her assignment was to report on passengers’ reactions after learning Skybus had folded. When the plane landed, Saunders knew she could tell the passengers. “I was anxious,” she said, because she didn’t know how they’d take the news.

Marrison’s rationalization?

We don’t interfere with the course of news except in extreme circumstances, such as when our silence on an impending event would put someone in harm’s way.

But wouldn’t that require the editors/reporters to know all of the passengers ahead of time on all of the flights, to be able to determine whether their being stuck away from home puts them in harm’s way?

On Monday, in the face of criticism that wouldn’t go away, Marrison took another stab at it:

In summary, we don’t violate embargoes or source agreements.

If only Ed Bradley were still around to straighten them out.

Update 9:36 a.m. Thurs. – Another angle, there’s a financial connection between the newspaper and the airline. See the comments.

  • I can’t imagine ever agreeing to an embargo like that. Sure, I’ll agree to embargo some report that’s about to come out. But to agree to an embargo that results in people being stranded because an airline is going out of business– that’s crazy.

    Do you know if they found out the info. because they agreed to the embargo? Because that makes things a little trickier.

  • Bob Collins

    As I understand it, yes, they were given the info in exchange for agreeing to the embargo. But here’s what I think, Jason: Burn your source. My guess it came from someone WITH the airline, which is going out of business. So you burn your source. The airline’s going out of business anyway, what is this person’s future worth?

    Of course, I’ve never been a big fan of the embargo. Around here — radio — we get burned regularly — mostly by arts organizations — who slap an embargo on something only because they don’t want to upset the local newspaper.

    But back to our story: It still comes down to — if you believe the editor — whether the situation would have caused harm. I find it an impossible standard to assess as I indicated.

    Maybe — I’m just saying — there was a woman in town for chemo treatment and was flying back home for a day and had to get back the next day for more chemo treatment. Maybe that was the only flight into Columbus, or maybe she spent the last dollar on the ticket. I don’t know, and yeah, it’s unlikely. But how does the editor know that couldn’t be the case?

    The ironic (or is it coincidental?) thing about it is the Fox TV station in town ended up breaking the story and blowing the embargo (which may or may not have existed for them) a few hours before the last flight and the paper STILL didn’t tell the passengers they were about to take a one-way trip.

    To me, it smells pretty bad. I’m surprised Romanesko and Editor and Publisher and all of those other sites frequented every couple of minutes (guilty, your honor) haven’t picked up on this yet for a wider discussion in the biz… ‘cuz I’m pretty sure most journalists would wade into the water. Well, that’s the idealism toward my brethren I like to cling to, anyway.

    I mean, how is this any different than knowing a gunman’s going to go into a school in 10 minutes and sitting on the story?

  • Simple answer to everything about this story, money. It is not about reporting, in this case, it is about ratings or sales. Sitting on the story the paper hoped for bigger dollars, with the sensational ‘journalism’.

    If the editor truly wanted to inform and educate the public, the story would have come out.

    If one of the passengers was his mother he would have told her, I would hope, so with that as my basis my logic is to treat everyone like you would treat your mother.

  • Than

    Bob, where would you draw the line between inconvenience and physical harm? It’s not as though they turn off the planes engine’s at 37,000 feet when the clock strikes 9:30…

    Prince Harry’s deployment in Afghanistan was an interesting embargo situation

    Certainly, the prince was in danger. Do you publish out of concern for his life, or respect his choice to put his life in danger?

    Obviously, that’s not a situation where The Man is bringing regular people down, but its certainly along that continuum. Can you point to any other situations along the thin grey line?

  • Bob Collins

    I think I answered that above. But keep in mind, the editor didn’t say PHYSICAL harm. He said “harm.”

    I think it’s fairly arrogant for a guy sitting in a cubicle somewhere in Columbus to know for certain that his keeping a secret that clearly holds the POTENTIAL for harm, will or won’t cause it.

    I’ve written in the past about Prince Harry. Report it. Harry came home not because the media put him in danger, but because the outcry from the people of the UK didn’t want him there in the first place. They’d made that clear earlier when outcry stopped his deployment previously.

    I don’t think the line is that thin. This isn’t hard.

    The question isn’t whether someone is or someone isn’t being harmed, the question journalists need to ask themselves is “why am I REALLY making this decision?” They need to be honest with themselves. Am I REALLY concerned about harm coming to a person? Or am I REALLY concerned about beating someone to a story.

    The other question that needed to be asked…. what do I have to gain by WAITING. The people’s reaction was to be just as interesting if they found out while waiting for the flight that they were about to be stranded. It could’ve even been a story about how the AIRLINE was about to let them get on the plane and strand them, were it not for the honesty of the news media.

    But now it’s not that story. It’s about the dishonesty of the news media.

    The biggest problem in journalism — to me — is journalists who can’t relate to the situation the people they’re covering are in.

    It’s really pathetic by any civilized standard.

  • bsimon

    Bob, do you think the reporters were obligated to tell the Skybus passengers because the reporters were on the same flight? Or do you think they would have been obliged to break the embargo even if they hadn’t ‘sensed a story’ and bought tickets?

    Were there other flights, say the 2nd to last, that they should also have been obliged to warn the passengers of potential abandonment?

    I think what makes it newsworthy to discuss the paper’s actions is that they decided to pursue the story by joining the unwitting one-way passengers on the last flight. But if the behavior is only perceived to be unethical because they were on the flight, perhaps it wasn’t unethical at all.

  • bsimon

    I see from Bob’s 9:18, that his argument is different from what I interpreted. I’m inclined to agree – the story probably should have been reported & the burden put on the airline to explain why they were staying quiet.

  • Bob Collins

    I don’t think the obligation is rooted in the ethics of journalism. I think the obligation is rooted in the standards of decency and doing the right thing. That’s the difference between ethical and not ethical; it’s not some line item in a book by Edward R. Murrow, it’s the values and decency with which you were raised, in my opinion.

    The nonsense of all of this was the source’s excuse for the embargo… “We wanted to tell the employees first.”

    “You’ve got one hour,” would’ve been my reply.

    I also would’ve asked the employees at the airline if they’d been told and if they hadn’t, I’d immediately know that the request for time to tell the employees was a total smokescreen.

    Having been in the news business this long, it’s obvious to me that the editor’s rationale is a reach to come up with something. In his heart, I would hope, he knows he’s wrong and it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to come out and say it.

    and, by the way, on “do no harm”? He has done considerable harm to his own industry. This will be held up as SOP for journalists and I don’t see how that benefits anyone.

  • Bob Collins
  • If that was a factor, that’s truly disgusting, Bob.

    And we get burned by the embargo all the time too– because groups want the front page newspaper article.

    On question: just because the paper reported the story, the people on the plane still might not know about it. Do the journalists have an obligation to tell the passengers in person?

  • Bob Collins

    Good question (to coin a phraase! :*) )

    I think it gets back to this being less about some sort of unwritten journalistic code and more about human values, where obligations are concerned.

    I think that’s the Ed Bradley lesson here. It didn’t matter to him what his obligation to his industry was when the people were drowning, it only mattered in the context of HIS values of the right thing to do.

    IF the journalists were going to be at the airport anyway (and of course these days, as you know, we have to buy tickets just to get to the gate area) then I think the question becomes moot because the story is the reaction of people to the news a reporter is giving them that the airline won’t be coming back home.

    Now, I think where it gets sticky is whether the reporter has an obligation to stand up and shout “attention, everybody! This airline is going belly up.”

    As opposed I guess to interviewing a passenger out in the open and letting the not-so-subtle components of human communication take over.

    what the editor didn’t foresee (stupidly, in my opinion) is that the story that came out of it isn’t the action of the airline; it’s the actions of the newspaper, instead. So it violates the whole notion of not becoming part of the story. Ironic, ain’t it?

    On the other hand, I realize that these issues are not black and white. One area where I get all tied up is war photographers. How on earth do they do their job and not get involved? I know they can’t (you can’t really tell the story if you’re taking sides).

    I recall a situation in Boston many years ago when I was going to school. Joe Green was a former Vietnam copter pilot and then the traffic reporter for WBZ Radio. A brownstone was on fire and a woman and her baby was on the top floor, screaming for help. He landed his helicopter on the roof in an effort to save them. (Shoot, in just looking for a link to the story, I found his obituary instead)

    As he did, the fire escape collapsed (here’s the photo). Stan Foreman of the Globe won a Pulitzer for the photo and I always wondered whether he ever regretted watching a woman plunging to her death, thinking maybe he should’ve just put the camera down and tried to do something. And iirc, Green took some heat for getting involved, too.