||35th NACDA Convention|
June 11-14, 2000
NCAA Division I Breakout Session
Monday, June 12, 10:00 - 11:45 a.m.
Good morning. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Debbie Yow. I'm the director of athletics at the University of Maryland and the president-elect of NACDA. Today's topic is "Media Ethics" and it's our Division I Breakout Session. You might remember we started this last year and, according to the responses we received, it was a very successful spirited session on this topic. It was offered for the first time last year.
Today's speakers are giants, and these are my words, in their industry. It's rare to have all three of them at one place at one time for us as a body to have the opportunity to dialogue in some meaningful way about our concerns and our issues related to the working relationships we all have with them.
Each person will speak for about 10 to 15 minutes and share any number of thoughts. There will be an opportunity to ask questions from the floor, which we encourage. We have our microphones set so we'll hear the questions and the answers.
Our first speaker is John Rawlings. John has been editor of The Sporting News for 10 years. He was previously the executive sports editor at the San Jose Mercury News for seven years. He had previously worked at the Philadelphia Enquirer and also at the Miami Herald. John earned his bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 1973 and his Master of Arts Degree from Missouri in 1976. Please join me in welcoming John Rawlings.
Thanks Debbie. I'm going to talk for a few minutes and stop in hopes there will be questions later on. Debbie primed us with a few questions she thought were worth addressing and I will speak to a couple of those. One, how do ethics policies get determined? It's different in each newspaper or magazine so I can only speak for the ones that I've actually worked at. There is what I would call a loose code of ethics, but there's really very little agreement and there can be a certain amount of disagreement from one journalist to the next about what those ethics entail. We saw that played out some just last week when Georgia's publication The Post and The Sporting News were fairly well criticized for sending reporters who were hand picked by Bob Knight to be part of the interview process at the University of Indiana. There were some editors and reporters who thought we should not accept an invitation where the news source is picking the people whom do the questioning. We can talk about the pros and cons of that later, if anybody wants to. I will say that Dave Kindred and I who represent The Sporting News had a brief discussion about it before he went. I agreed that he should go. We talked about it afterward. I asked him if he would have done anything differently and he said, "absolutely not," nor would I. I have a perfectly clear conscience on that.
The notion of news sources controlling the flow of information is not new. It goes back in history centuries. We are seeing more of it now and, in fact, shortly before there was the brouhaha among sports journalists about the reporters who were given an invitation to interview Bob Knight, there was a story about a merger in the airline industry between United Airlines and another airline. United called reporters from three major newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and a third newspaper. They said they would give them a break on this story, but they were not allowed to go to the analysts on Wall Street and ask their opinion. Surprisingly, both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times accepted those conditions. There are all sorts of issues that we face as editors all of the time. Ultimately, the New York Times backed out.
To me, our job as journalists is to be honest and fair. There is a notion taught in journalism schools and you may have heard this, about objectivity. Objectivity does not exist. We do ourselves a disservice as an industry when we talk about objectivity. It is impossible as human beings to be objective. George and I don't see the same thing even if we see the same incident, because of the background and history that we bring to it. I do think we can be honest and fair. I moved to St. Louis shortly after Debbie did and watched her be absolutely be carved up in an unconscienceable way by the good-old-boys network in St. Louis. I caught a little of that myself, not nearly to the degree that any of you get covered. The person I replaced at The Sporting News had worked side-by-side with many of the media in St. Louis and they didn't like the fact that this new guy was coming in from out of town to replace him. So, I am sympathetic with people who end up on the wrong side of the good-old-boys network. It can be a very unfriendly place to be. The role of editors is to make sure that does not happen. An editor constantly saying, are we being honest or are we being fair, should balance the subjectivity that any reporter brings to a story.
The role of magazines is a little different than daily newspapers in that because of our publishing cycle, we're weekly. Many magazines, what is considered men's magazines, appeal to a male audience and, therefore, sell advertising to advertisers who are trying to reach a male audience. They write a lot about sports. In the magazine business, writers are encouraged to express opinions and put themselves into the story where it's appropriate. Certainly, we do that at The Sporting News.
I don't have any problems, in fact, quite the contrary, I encourage reporters to express an opinion in the stories they write. The responsibility, then, is even more incumbent upon us to be fair. Anyone who has agreed to buy a story in The Sporting News will find there will be ways to address it. I hope people who are written about by reporters who write for The Sporting News are talked to before the story is published. That's the way it's supposed to work. I can tell you that it doesn't always work like that. We're not perfect, but it's supposed to work that way. We should have checks in place to prohibit crucial, ethical problems from reaching print. Unfortunately, it happens from time to time. When that happens, it's my responsibility to see that they can redressed as best they can. I also know, having said that, that it's impossible to totally redress a problem where we have failed to do our work, therefore, a news source is unfairly criticized. Once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, it can't be put back in and I am very mindful of that.
I am considered by most of my colleagues something of an extremist on ethical issues. As an example, we do not allow any gambling ads or tout ads or any reference to gambling in our magazine, whatsoever (audience clapped). I do know how to play to an audience, however. That is something I feel very strongly about and I think it is one of the largest problems facing college sports. Now, with the advent of the Internet, gambling is legal in most states through the Internet. That presents a whole other series of problems.
If I were king, what would I do? I'd have one very simple rule. If you cheat, you get fired, period, end of discussion. That is the standard we have at The Sporting News. My mom always used to say, "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it." I never wished to have to put that policy in place or have to execute it. It's happened one time where a person who worked for The Sporting News plagiarized another writer's work. We found out about it in a remarkably short time. That is, both one of the benefits and the liabilities of the world we live in, in terms of the Internet. Once we got to the bottom of it and, indeed, he had plagiarized someone else's work, he was fired. It turned out this is a friend of mine from college at the University of Missouri. I considered him a friend of considerable longstanding. That makes putting those policies in place pretty tough, but I see too many people in our business who are willing to set aside personal relationships or business relationships in terms of a columnist's popularity and not do the right thing when it comes to dealing with people who cheat. If I were king, I would wish that you all would do the same things. If somebody who works for you cheats, they're fired and that's the end of the discussion.
If we come all this way and nobody asks any questions that offend us, then it really hasn't been a good use of time. If you're sitting out there thinking I really want to nail this guy, go ahead. We're here to exchange ideas. I never take anything personally, even when it's intended that way. I hope if you've got any tough questions, you'll be comfortable asking them.
I didn't know John would reference the St. Louis experience. The experience did turn out positive in the end. I was able to stay there for four years and turn the tide. Can you imagine the shock I felt when I was there for about a year, things were pretty good, being a female AD at a private, Catholic, Midwestern institution, being a Southern female Protestant. When John actually walked up to me and acknowledged that that was impacting how I was being perceived and, therefore, characterized in a couple of articles, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I have never had that experience or that type of exchange with anyone in the media. It was so heartening and so encouraging, it ended up making a difference in terms of my willingness to stay the course, so to speak. John, I appreciate that about you. We were able to continue our friendship because The Sporting News wasn't writing about us every day. We didn't have a beat writer and we had an opportunity for a different kind of relationship.
Our next speaker is Jim Welch. Jim serves as deputy managing editor for sports at USA Today. He was one of the founding editors of the newspaper in 1982, serving as its first Washington editor with responsibility for coverage of politics, the White House and Capital Hill. After one year in that role, he was named editor of the Burlington Free Press, the largest newspaper in Vermont. Welch served two years as president of the New England Associated Press Editors Association and served on National Associated Press Committees on Ethics and Foreign News. He returned to USA Today in 1989 as college sports and special projects editor. He served for three years as a weekly football commentator on CNN. He has coordinated the Daily Sports Report since 1992 and is a member of the Olympics and Ethics Committees of the AP Sports Editors. He is a graduate of Georgetown University where he majored in international relations. He has written for USA Today and Gannett News Service from such places as Northern Ireland and Central Asia, however, he has found such assignments as the Winter Olympics and the upcoming summer games in Sydney a little more to his liking. Please join me in welcoming Jim Welch.
Thanks Debbie. As John had mentioned, Debbie had sent us a letter outlining some of the areas she wanted us to touch upon. I'll try not to repeat some of those that John did touch on, but you'll also see some areas where perhaps our perspectives are a little different. I, too, am interested in your questions. Ethics codes are present in most newspapers, television newsrooms and they're long and try to cover everything you could think of from corrections to conflicts of interests to fairness, balance. Those are all important considerations, but if we were to tick through all of them, we could be here all day.
One year ago this week, the parent company of my newspaper, USA Today, issued a set of ethical guidelines for all 73 of its newspapers. This decision was prompted in part by a situation in Cincinnati where a reporter had gathered information from what turned out to be stolen voice mails. This seriously tarnished what, otherwise, was a rather solid investigative report on Chiquita. As it turned out, the company ended up repudiating everything and paid a rather hefty settlement as a result. That was not the sole reason, but there was a general sense that the credibility of the media has fallen and surveys seem to point that way. There was a comprehensive need for trying to address this some way in all of its newsrooms. USA Today has not completely signed on to this although we tend to follow the guidelines. We're part of a slightly different division of the company.
One of the things Debbie did ask about is how important are scoops before a press announcement and why does it seem to be of such value to us in this business. In many ways it's the life blood of the working journalist. It's what drives reporters to work long hours pursuing sources and digging to break a story that no one else has. It can energize the staff, making reporters more alert and not content to just sit around and wait for the news to come to them. It can also build reader loyalty.
Back in the 1970s, there was an incredible string of exclusives the Washington Post had during the Watergate affair. I was working for a magazine and wasn't quite as tuned in to the daily scoops. My brother and I would go out each night at 1000 p.m., where we could pick up a copy of the next morning's Post to see what Woodward and Bernstein were up to. They built a strong following in us, I must say. In many cities, competition to break a big sports story, the trade of a superstar athlete or the impending hiring of a new coach, is as fierce as any battle among Washington correspondents from a scoop from the White House.
Bill Dwyer, now the sports editor at the Los Angeles Times, said that the biggest moment of his journalistic career was breaking the news that the Milwaukee Bucks were trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975. Dwyer, then the sports editor at the Milwaukee Journal, said that when he "walked into that room where the Bucks officially announced the trade to all other reporters to the world after I had already printed it, man that was better than sex." Dwyer, of course, was right with his scoop, but our profession has had its share of those that turned out to be wrong.
You may recall that a few months before his actual death, a network reported that baseball Hall of Famer, Joe DiMaggio had died. The same thing happened with Bob Hope a few years ago and I see where he left the hospital just the other day.
The well-known motto of the Associated Press is "Get it First, but First, Get it Right." Just a few weeks back, an AP writer in Washington had a scoop that St. John's coach, Mike Jarvis, who had just turned down an offer from Michael Jordan to take over as coach of the Washington Wizards, was talking to a major Big Ten school about a job. The report was attributed to Jarvis' agent; however, it turned out that the writer had contacted another person by the same name who turned out to be the wrong guy. The wrong guy happened to be a Michigan guy who thought some of his fellow grads were playing a practical joke so he went along with it. Obviously, this is somewhat an unusual situation, but it does point up the need to check and recheck again and again.
Most of the problems you run into in the drive for scoops are a result of reliance on anonymous sources, another topic that Debbie had mentioned. Remember Richard Jewell who had been described by unnamed sources as the lead suspect in the Centennial Park bombing in the 1996 Atlanta Games? It turned out to be incorrect and CNN, NBC and at least one newspaper ended up paying rather sizeable settlements before a suit. Our newspaper's policy on the use of unnamed sources is that we will only use them on matters of fact and only as a last resort. I can recall only a handful of times where we've actually done that. Before that threshold is crossed, the identity of the source must be disclosed to the managing editor who will be bound by the same promise of confidentiality.
In the outline to those of us on the panel, Debbie pointed out that media consultants to athletic directors say one should never go off the record. As one who decided a few years back not to say anything to a reporter unless I was willing to see it on a headline on the front page, I'd have to say that's good advice.
I was living in Vermont as a political writer. I received a phone call from a reporter from the Washington Times, a competitor to the Post. He was asking me about a Senator from my state who was up for re-election. He was the Chairman of the District Appropriations Committee and the reporter wanted to know what his position on abortion meant to the voters in Vermont. It's a complex issue there. He happens to be Roman Catholic, and I don't mean to stereotype it in any way, in a largely Catholic state. This was a difficult one for him there. I spoke to him on background trying to explain as much as I could and help out a new reporter. About two weeks later, I received a copy of this front-page article with a note from the Senator saying, "I thought you'd be interested in this." Of course, all of the texture, all of the context was removed and here I seemed to really over-simplify the issue. I learned something from that.
I would say, however, that if you ever attempted to go on background with someone, make sure it's with someone you have a solid relationship with and someone who you've known for a while.
I can see an occasion where you might background a reporter in order to steer him off a story that seems to be way off the mark. Regardless, always make sure of the ground rules before you enter into any substance of interview. If nothing is said, everything is fair game. Whatever you do, don't try to put something off the record after you've already mentioned it.
We were also asked if anything is ever off limits to what we cover. One area where we need to apply utmost care is in reporting on the private lives of athletes at all levels. We need to ask, does the public have a justifiable need to know or are we just pandering to lurid curiosity? One situation you may recall and it has not always been accurately reported, but it was a difficult one. In 1992, we were pursuing a story that tennis great, Arthur Ashe, had AIDS. We hadn't printed a story, but by virtue of our asking questions of him, he felt the need to call a press conference the next day. We fielded hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from my readers. We had 60 or 70 subscriptions that were cancelled. Editors were meeting across the city and they seemed to be pretty divided about our role in had that been appropriate or not. That's something that should give us pause anytime situations like that arise.
John mentioned the matter of the Bob Knight press conference a couple of weeks ago with the pre-selected reporters. Also part of that was an ESPN live interview with two interviewers who were also selected. I was less concerned with the reporters meeting there. I know several of them personally and have great respect for them. I am, however, somewhat troubled by it, but I can't assure anyone here that had we been offered a spot at the table, that we would have turned it down. My main concern with ESPN was that they agreed ahead of time not to broadcast that controversial tape that some people say shows Bob Knight choking a former player. In fact, one of the interviewers later acknowledged that he had never even seen the tape. This is incredible to me not to be at least that prepared.
John mentioned gambling. We carry point spreads in our paper and that can be rather controversial. Most of us tend to feel that it is not universal and that we're providing information. You can't bet on a point spread in the newspaper, but I can't stand here and say that people don't look at that and say they might want to contact a bookmaker on this. One of the related items is the publication called, "Tout Ads," which we carry. They are of great concern to me. I think they really tend to sucker in the unsuspecting public. At the same time, it's an advertising product and as someone who is in news, I'm not comfortable going into advertising and saying we don't want you running these. I've provided information that I believe certainly calls those into question, at least from the consumer point of view. I prefer not to have advertising come to me and say we don't want you to write this story about the problems on the NASCAR circuit. We basically have tried to stay away from this.
A couple of years ago the NCAA didn't name us specifically, but it was clear to all of us in the business who it was aimed at, was going to keep us from being credentialed at the Final Four. We moved ahead and made plans to obtain tickets. We considered the matter important enough for us to stand by.
One last element I'd like to touch on is conflicts of interest, which in some ways, can be the most difficult controversial area to manage. Especially today, with the Internet, with opportunities for our writers to write columns for web sites. There's a lot of money being thrown that way. Many of us are seeing some of our best people lured away by this. Some of us are having to re-examine what our policies are on working for other employers. I was concerned when I first got to the world of sports that this area was a little slower in adapting to the appropriate guidelines on conflicts of interest.
I saw examples where some reporters had co-authored books with some athletes and continue to cover them. We had a person who did our prep rankings, our high school rankings and some complaints had come my way that if you were a kid who attended one of this individual's summer camps, you stood a much better change of being named to the All-USA Today Team. We looked at this and found it was without merit, but at the same time, appearances sometimes can be as damaging as the reality so, we brought the individual onto our staff and he got out of the business of running hoops camps.
One potentially sensitive area in the involvement of staff members is voting for the major awards. As you know, the winner of the Heisman Trophy can expect some financial benefit for being selected the top player in college football. No doubt you've heard of the incentive clauses that come the way of people who were named Most Valuable Player or Cy Young Award winners. Some would argue instead of reporting the news, we're helping to make it.
You might recall a few weeks ago, when Fred Hickman of CNN was in the spotlight for being the lone media voter who kept Shaquille O'Neal from being a unanimous choice for NBA MVP. Some newspapers prohibit voting entirely. If I'm not mistaken, I think George's is among them.
Ours is intended to try and limit it. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll have to mention that I've been a Heisman elector for the last seven or eight years myself. There have been times when I wonder if that's fully appropriate. I've convinced myself that, although every vote counts, the fact that I'm one of roughly 900 eases my concern a little bit. At the same time, I believe the panel for selecting people who would be elected to the NHL Hall of Fame is smaller. That's an area where we've urged our writer to decline participation.
One other area we're involved in that creates some controversy is the college football and college basketball polls. Occasionally, those make news and I play a direct role in overseeing that to assure ourselves that it's conducted fairly. I can recall a couple of times when I've been bombarded with inquiries from reporters. We had a coach from the Big Ten who mentioned how his son, who happened to be an assistant on the team, had filled out his preseason ballot. Every reporter from the Big Ten town was on the phone to me and asked me what was going on. It does pose some problems.
Those are some of the issues and I've only touched on a few of them. If there's any common theme to the things we're talking about here is that no two situations are alike and there are no easy answers. The best, most detailed code will only go so far in insuring ethical behavior by those who gather and report the news.
In our coverage of the world of sports today, we ask a lot of coaches, teams and student-athletes when it comes to how they conduct themselves. By the same token, you should do likewise in holding those of us in the media to similarly high standards. Thank you.
Thank you Jim. Our last speaker is someone I've gotten to know quite well in the last six years since I took the University of Maryland job. For those of you who are not familiar with the geography of Maryland, we are, as we say in our area, inside the Belt Way. There's life inside the Belt Way and then there's life outside the Belt Way, I have learned. We're only about seven or eight miles from the capital. If Washington were not annexed, it would in fact, be a part of the state of Maryland.
George Solomon has been the assistant managing editor for sports at The Washington Post for the last 25 years. Previously, he was a sports reporter for The Washington Post for three years. He had also worked at The Washington Daily News and the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Centennial. George graduated from the University of Florida, familiar territory down here. Please join me in welcoming George Solomon.
Thank you Debbie. When Debbie asked if I would come to speak to you, without hesitation, I said, absolutely, because there's very few groups of people in the country who mean as much to newspapers and reporters as you all do. Particularly, if you answer the phone and return our calls and answer our questions, you mean a lot to us because you make the news.
Like John Rawlings, I will shamelessly say The Washington Post has never printed college point spreads. However, while we hold to this, we do accept massage parlor ads. I really have a difficult time coming to grips with this policy. We've never really run college point spreads and the reason is we've always felt there was a division between college athletics and professional athletics. For that reason, we've always had that policy. In about 1981, Dean Smith, who used to coach basketball at North Carolina, called my boss, Ben Bradley and asked, "Would you do me a tremendous favor?" My boss called me and asked me who is this Dean Smith. I told him and he got back on the phone with Dean. Dean asked, "Would you take the point spreads out of your paper?" Ben Bradley always saw the big picture. He really didn't follow point spreads. He said he would take them out. Well, we never had them and to this day, Dean Smith and Ben Bradley believe they've helped college athletics immeasurably and we let them have that credit.
Let me go through a few points Debbie mentioned. I will be a little repetitive. Let me share with you a conversation I had with a woman who was one of our interns this summer about how to be a reporter at The Washington Post. It's quite simple. Be honest, be fair, be objective. John pointed out earlier that it's impossible to be objective, but I don't believe that's the case. John also says he doesn't mind it when reporters express opinions in news stories and we really attempt to forbid that. That's why we have columnists and there's a tremendous separation, at least at The Post, between the columnists and the reporters. We ask our reporters not to inject their opinions. Do your own work. Don't share information with other reporters and don't solicit information from other reporters. If you see something in another newspaper or hear it on television, please make sure you credit the other news organizations for what you put in The Post. That's very important.
You also have to know the responsibility you have. What we do and what we say is important. It's the record of history, however current. We also make mistakes. Please don't fall over. When we do make a mistake, be big about it, correct it. Get it right. Present both sides of an issue. That's not too difficult, but it takes work. If we're writing about a current story or controversy at the University of Maryland, make every attempt to get Debbie Yow or one of Debbie's associates to present the Maryland side as well as the player's side. Get both sides of the issue. The Bobby Knight story is pretty simple. Knight had been away since the decision that he could remain as coach. He came back and chose seven reporters to come to his office for a session. There were no restrictions on questions. Politicians do this all the time. If George Bush, Jr. wants a certain reporter at The Washington Post to come to the office for an interview, we'll do it, as long as there were no restrictions on the questions. In retrospect, could we have asked a couple of different questions than were asked at that interview session and the answer is, yes, in hindsight. How would Knight have reacted? The funny thing about it is that Knight would have reacted well because, obviously, he's playing defense right now. Had ESPN chosen to tell Knight's people that we've got to show this tape, I'm almost sure Knight would have gone ahead with the interview and I think ESPN regrets that decision.
The one thing that hasn't been discussed here and that you're all well aware of, is that talk radio and reporters on television have changed our life. It's changed yours. Not a day goes by when at least half of you are called idiots. Sports editors are called idiots too, so don't feel alone. It's shock radio and it's worked its way into sports. This is very difficult. One of our columnists has a radio show five days a week, three hours a day on ESPN on the radio. That's a lot of time to fill. Occasionally, he'll say things on ESPN radio that we wouldn't print in The Washington Post and, quite frankly, would drive me up the wall a little bit. Like most newspapers now, we're much more flexible in what we permit our employees to do away from the particular newspaper. It does cause us problems sometime.
This is important to you. What warrants coverage? The news of the day, and the news of the day in many of your areas is information and stories you'd prefer not to see in our newspapers. We understand that, nevertheless, we pursue the news. We hope you respond to our questions. We feel the whole tone of news coverage and coverage of college athletics has changed over the years and I would hope you'd ask the questions you want to ask. Whether it's a situation at the University of Minnesota, the news of the day about an athlete getting in trouble, the area and sensitivity of news that we cover has really changed. We're the people who decide how stories are played, how games are covered, how games are advanced. Our responsibilities have changed both in the coverage of men's athletics and in women's athletics. There's only so much space in newspapers, we have to make decisions and sometimes our decisions are incorrect. We understand that, but we try to talk to people like you, talk to readers, talk to people who go to events and try to get a gauge for what people want to read. This, at times, can be very difficult.
We'll be criticized if we lead with a Women's Final Four basketball game on a particular Monday over the advance of a men's Final Four game. It's interesting that some people just can't accept the fact that on a particular day, we're giving the women a better ride than the men. We don't take a poll and decide what to print. Last year, the women's soccer got a great ride because there was great interest in it. The meat and potato sports fan, the guy who listens to sports radio was enraged. Just like the same people who were enraged over the coverage of the Women's Final Four. On the other hand, I have a philosophy of, spread it around a little bit. You don't have to feed the big dog every day and we try not to.
We do go for the news. There is nothing greater than getting a terrific story first and there's nothing lower than when the competition beats you on a story. If you're not a newspaper person, that's hard to understand, but it is true and we don't try to disguise it. As far as voting for postseason awards, we don't do it at The Washington Post unless members of the staff are voting for sports editor of the year. I do encourage that, but we don't vote for postseason awards simply because, in many professional athletes' contracts, there are incentives of up to $1 million per year for a particular player getting an MVP Award. As far as college and Heisman, I also feel that if a person wins the Heisman Trophy that enhances that person's earning ability and I don't think that should be our role.
I've enjoyed coming down here and talking to you. I hope you have lots of questions and we'll try to answer them. Thank you, again, for being cooperative, for the most part.
I'm Bill Bradshaw, athletics director at DePaul. My question has to do with anonymous sources. I never have completely heard an answer from an editor or a newspaper that satisfied me and that could be my problem. One of the issues I have with an anonymous source is that it could be somebody who could be a disgruntled former employee, an athlete who didn't get a scholarship and, therefore, their name in your newspaper could actually hurt the credibility of the story. There may be for a columnist not wanting to have that source in there. We think sometimes, as ADs, that there isn't an anonymous source. It could actually be the columnist who wants a personal edge to the story. The next part of the question is, how do you treat that legally, when the source says that curtain is black and you call us and we say it's white and you go with it anyway. I'm just looking for a little deeper, more detailed response about how you deal with anonymous sources.
Very often, much of what we print you all would prefer not to see in the paper. Very often, anonymous sources are the backbone of a story. Our policy is that if we're going to go with a story and we believe it's correct, make sure you have two to three sources that would back you up. If you're not correct, you've done a bad job. Nobody is perfect, but we put stories in the paper that people do not want to have their names on. I'm sure there are some people in this room who have been anonymous sources to newspapers and to newspaper reporters you all believe you could trust. At The Post, we attempt to get it right. In 25 years, in my case, we've been sued once and that was the first year I was on the job. We won that case and haven't been sued since. It's your reputation and my reputation that's on the line to get it right.
I also feel columnists have the same standards as news reporters. I don't know if I've answered your question other than to say that much of the best stories we print are stories from people who do not want to go on the record. As long as we're trying to get it right, that's our job.
I would like to add that what you don't see is the number of stories that come to us by anonymous sources that never get published. We spend a lot of manpower tracking down what turns out to be erroneous information. A senior editor at our place has to know who the source is anytime a reporter uses an unnamed source. There should be a conversation to the point of what does this person have to gain by being unnamed? Can we use his name? If we can't use his name, can we identify him in some way that allows the reader to have a better understanding of the context? You're right, disgruntled employees are frequently unnamed sources.
In your context, if the president of DePaul is doing a bad job and it's adversely affecting you, are you willing to have your name attached to a comment to a reporter? Maybe, but maybe not. Those are the kind of situations we find ourselves in.
The one thing you'd never have to wonder with us is if the source actually existed because it's required that we know. We make that clear with reporters before they offer anyone confidentiality. They also have to tell them that the other guy is going to know about this. In some cases, I've spoken with the source myself in the pursuit of the story. As John said, there are many pieces that don't make it.
Joe Castiglione from the University of Oklahoma. I'd address this question to anybody on the panel. It's a two-part question. One, the comment that was made about holding members of the media to a high standard of ethics, my question would be, how can we be most effective in doing so? It's been sided through many of the comments how each of you employ certain standards and values in your own organizations and yet, you also sided how other, so called news agencies, or those that represent themselves as news agencies, talk radio, etc., really aren't held to any level of accountability. When those of us in this business try to stand up for a standard, oftentimes, we are often ridiculed just for that stance. People lose sight of the message we're trying to send.
Secondly, listening and hearing what's coming down the road, the slight changes in open records laws or at least as open records laws are interpreted, I'd like to hear your views about how far people should go into gaining access to information. Currently, we understand documents and such that relate to our business, but there's an alarming concern about access to electronic mail, voice mail or any recorded piece of information. How far will certain states allow the media to delve into information that might be recorded? I'd like to have you address those two points.
Just on your second question about how far do you go with information that is readily available and each day becoming more readily available, there are new searching devices on the Internet and services offered where you can gather very personal data, financial data, etc., about people we might be inclined to cover. That includes athletes, administrators and coaches. It's a brave new world. We've got to be really careful with that. We have access to some of these services and we make sure it's only done with the knowledge of an editor and that there be a specific purpose for it. This information we hope to obtain is germane to the story we're working on. Otherwise, let's stay away from this. Let's not be careless with how information gets passed around the newsroom. We've all seen that sort of thing happen from time to time. It is a great concern. We've got to make some really tough calls with that.
There is that ultimate accountability and that is the accountability of the marketplace. Particularly, when I talk to students in journalism, I start out by asking what's the most important goal for my company. They'll answer, covering the news, fairness, accuracy, etc. It used to be when I worked for a publicly held company, the most important goal for my company was to make money. Ultimately, any business that treads on lies and deceit should fail. That doesn't always happen, just look at the National Enquirer, which is one of the most successful businesses in the media. The distance between the National Enquirer and the New York Times, if it used to be this, now it's this. That's a reality for all of us who have to be responsible for running a business that is a journalistic endeavor.
In terms of going after information, I'll use a situation that you were in, Joe. There was a lot of discussion in the St. Louis and Kansas City newspapers when Joe was offered the job at Oklahoma, of should Missouri counter and offer him the same financial package that he was being offered at Oklahoma? It was uncomfortable for you to see your salary in the newspaper and your potential salary in the newspaper. It may be uncomfortable for me to even mention it now, but that's the kind of information that I believe is part of the reporting that we need to do by the virtue of our jobs and by the virtue that even if you are at a private institution, if you're competing in Division I athletics, you give up some of your privacy. In the currency of the marketplace right now, your salary is something that is of interest to readers and alumni. It's not just titillation and the kind of information that's going to help people make consumer decisions which is a term that I like to use.
Specifically on the access, it's important in the world of accountability reporting to get as much accurate information as possible to be fair to do right in the accountability process. There is very often during the year a chronicle on the grades of your student-athletes and sometimes, editors and reporters need to be a little more cautious and a little more self-respectful of a person's privacy even if it's a 19-year old freshman. In that regard, we are cognizant of it and we are aware of the privacy guidelines. These guidelines also include a lot of whom we cover. There was a former athlete in our area who no longer plays on a team, who is critically ill and we tried to do a story which would have been a very good story, but it's obvious that neither the athlete nor the family would talk about it. We had hearsay information and we chose not to print it.
As far as standards of our personnel, we have standards like you do. Our people are held accountable by how they perform, by what they report, how they comport themselves to what I consider a rigid standard at The Washington Post, just like you may have. Where we see great divides are the talk radio, as I mentioned before, and now we have dozens and dozens of Internet sites competing for the news. I will stand before you and say you can come into my house, look at our standards, at our people and look at our record. A lot of the Internet sites are not yet willing or capable to make that statement.
Your world has changed. Our world has changed too, but so has yours.
One thing I would add and I know this is a source of irritation for the people we cover. Why do you have to ask that question? Information can come from any number of sources. Right now, there are a lot of what I would call unregulated sources. Some Internet sites fall into that category and some talk radio shows, depending upon the host, fall into that category. This pertains more to George than either Jim or me, but I've seen it played out in a number of ways. A rumor gets started and it gets fed and at some point, if there are a number of people talking about it, a legitimate news source knows that his reader is asking the same question, what about that? The Mike Jarvis story might have been a good example. At some point, there are enough people who are talking about it that we need to ask the question, even if it started with what we consider an illegitimate source. Maybe even if the question is so bazaar that we know when we ask it, the person on the other end is going to be mad, if there are enough people talking about it, we still have to ask the question.
I don't know how many man hours we spend at The Mercury News, on two different occasions tracking down the rumor that we were assured about by anonymous sources who had intimate knowledge of police records in Redwood City, that Joe Montana had been stopped and arrested for being in possession of cocaine. This was in the mid-80s. When somebody calls and says the highest profile athlete in your area and the cops are covering it up and the team is covering up, I believe we've got an obligation to check that story out. We went through the same thing twice about three years apart. The second time, unfortunately, Joe Montana had to start a press conference because the rumors were so ripe. As far as I know, no one ever published a story, but we were asking around a lot so I'm not surprised that it got back to him.
If you ignore those kinds of questions that your readers are asking then you're being irresponsible for not even raising the question. That doesn't mean that just because you invest a lot of time in a story that you have to publish something.
Very often, we'll ask a reporter to do the work. We'll hear from news sources and officials asking why are you doing this? Why are you working on this? The reporting is part of what we do. If we publish something that is incorrect or inaccurate, then jump on us, but not for the reporting itself. Some of our best reporting results in stories that are never printed.
From the Floor
You alluded earlier to different philosophies between departments at newspapers, whether it's the advertising departing or the sports department. There was a much publicized situation in Los Angeles this year, that related to an advertising supplement when the Staples Center opened and the conflicts of interests that happened at that newspapers. Oftentimes in athletics programs, if we can't get the stories written, we have to buy the space to advertise our programs. I just wonder if you see a conflict or if you would comment on how we manage that situation.
You're talking about the Staples Center, which opened last fall. The Los Angeles Times and the Arena went into a business proposition together which turned out to be very embarrassing to the Los Angeles Times. It's easy for me to say that we would never do anything like that. We would be against this. You should not be in business with someone you cover. We would hope the red light would have gone on at The Washington Post and we would hope that we wouldn't do that. I'm not going to throw the first stone.
The fact is, there is a separation of church and state between advertising departments and the newspaper. Sometimes an ad salesman will call and say he has an opportunity to sell a strip ad at the bottom of the page, which is six columns across. It may be on the golf page. Are you going to have this golf page more than two months? Maybe five years ago I would have said to the salesman that I can't even disclose that information. Now, at least I'll say that we plan on running the golf page through August. If you can sell an ad, go ahead. We'll do that now.
Sometimes people will ask if they take an ad, can they get on the college basketball page. We will make no assurances for that. Good newspapers and good news organizations attempt to have a separation between the advertising and sales department. As well, there is a separation between the news and the editorials departments. Many of you might scoff at that, but that's a fact too.
I'd like to add with the Staples Center, I can't foresee how that type of arrangement would take place involving our sports department. That being said, we do have similar programs to what George is describing. In business, it's known as an advertising adjacency. Where we plan to provide coverage of a particular sport, the ad department is able to sell advertising providing we can still organize the section the way we want to. They can sell advertising adjacent to or near where that coverage would be. It would have no impact on the volume of that coverage, certainly, no impact on the content of it. We've had organizations come to us asking us to put out a special section where all of the advertising would be purchased on a sport that just does not have the kind of following it would need to make that work from a journalistic standpoint. With all due respect, I think rodeo is one that had come to us and bought an advertising supplement that included the National Rodeo Finals that takes place in Las Vegas.
We have golf coverage. We'll have a strip ad or a quarter page ad that is golf related. There are no holds barred in terms of what we can run there. We've run ads from the PGA itself and had stories highly critical of the PGA on the same page. In fact, one would wonder why they would want to be there.
The important thing is, as long as the news department, the editorial department maintain control over the content and not get all twisted out of shape in publishing information from sports that you would not routinely cover, that's a proper breakdown of the walls between church and state. You don't want them to go away completely, but there are ways you can work together for the betterment of the overall enterprise. As John said, we are in the business of making money as well.
If you buy an ad, are you likely to get coverage? I'm not sure if that's part of what you were wondering. I doubt that's going to happen. In some cases, for some parts of some of your programs, the only way to get coverage may be to buy ad space. When you're in business, not all things are created equal, so you have to respond in that regard in the space that you do have.
From the Floor
To what level do you insist on diligence before you decide to go with the story? Do you go after you check the primary sources, secondary, third level, when it's probably true or when it's provably true? That's one question. Relating that to other markets. You guys are the big guys. You got millions of bucks to pour into researching something before you go with it. A lot of us exist in markets that may subscribe to your papers where we are so we have to rely on the local papers. Is it fair for us to expect the local writers to practice the same level of due diligence before they go with a story as what we should expect of you that have the millions to pour into a story?
The second question, I'd like for you to comment is that we all make mistakes. We do, papers do, everyone does. When it happens in the paper, the toothpaste is out of the tube. When it's called to your attention, the retraction often is written, but it never has the position as the initial story. It's on the fourth page and buried. That's a bit bothersome.
The third item is, while our business has changed because of the Internet, I suspect yours has too. What is your reaction if a university had a policy that when a story is breaking, they put it on their web site one hour before they made a press release out of it?
You go into print with a story when you better be right. It comes down to a newspaper's reputation, our reputation and how do you know when you're right is you know when you're right. You know who your reporters are, you know who you can count on, you know who the sources are. All of us have had our jobs more than a year or two and if we make too many mistakes, they get new editors. If the reporters make too many mistakes, we get new reporters. There is accountability. I have a boss. Actually, I have lots of bosses. We're accountable. My boss is accountable to the publisher and the publisher is accountable to his mother. She's good. We are all accountable.
As far as the locals and the local press, they should be held to the same standards and I'm sure they are to the same standards our reporters are. To say that their standards are different because they make a different salary or they work for a different news organization is not fair to them, not fair to the newspaper and not fair to the community they serve. They should be held to that same standard.
As far as corrections are concerned, we have page two in the "A" section where we print corrections. Have we ever put a correction on the front page of the sports section of The Washington Post? A couple of times we've had stories that make it very clear that what we printed previously was not completely accurate and we try to set the record straight. The New York Times has something called an editing clarification. That's happened a couple of times. You're accountable to your readers. We are accountable to you. You buy the paper, you buy the ads, you read the ads and we're accountable. That's very important for you to think about.
As far as the Internet is concerned, it might be helpful to a reporter, but we like our reporters to do their own work. We like to get the story first and for the reporters to be in communication with all of you to get the stories first.
You had asked at what levels do we check with other sources. A lot of this depends on the nature of the story. If it's really a serious matter where someone is being accused of wrongdoing, what matters is, how solid is your source? There is no magic number. I'd rather have one good one who is in a position to know than to have three others who think something might be up there.
We had a story recently about whether Charles Barkley was going to play in Phoenix one night, Philadelphia the next and Houston the third night, so he would have ended his career at places where he had been a member of the team. We had gotten good information from somebody who said this was going to happen. It was a matter of making it clear in our story that it was possible, because of his injuries, that it might not happen, but that was what the plan was. We did not indicate who told us about this. You can reasonably argue that the nature of that story wasn't one where there was great impact. It didn't mean that a lot of people were going to go out and buy tickets. It turned out he didn't. His doctor called him off because of a knee injury. A lot depends on the nature of the story.
I would like to make one point on the unidentified source question. We can all sit here and talk about out policies in dealing with our own reporters and editors. One of the troublesome things I've seen is how many newspapers, radio stations and web sites that may not hold their people to the same standard. They are putting out a lot of information and people are talking about it. We don't want to be left out if our readers are talking about it. We want to inform them. I'm concerned with editors who are too quick to say, let's pick up this ESPN reporter, and let's pick up this CNN saying such and such. With the tape involving the Indiana coach, at least you got to see something. Prior to that, there was a report of this out there. That's where it becomes difficult. Some papers are quick to just put it in and attribute it to someone else. If ESPN says this, that's fine, we've got no responsibility for that. I take issue with that.
Provability is a very difficult thing. O.J. is guilty or not guilty. To say we're not going to publish anything until we can prove it's right would put restraints on us that are not practical and would not serve readers as well. It's more meeting a standard as a business, as an endeavor. Do we have the checks in place to do the best we can?
The facts that you have today can change. If you report that Mike Jarvis is going to take the job with the Wizards because, at the time a reporter talks to him, that was the way he felt at that point and the next day he changes his mind, the only thing we can do is take a snapshot and report what we know at the time. To me, that's different than doing the reporting and getting something wrong. You use the term the toothpaste is out of the tube. You're right. There's nothing you can do to get it back in. If you feel like the media companies that cover you are not doing it in a professional way, have a discussion about that starting with the sports editor at a time when there's not a crisis. Unfortunately, what happens most of the time, is that difficult discussions about policy and fairness happen only as a direct result when you feel you've been aggrieved when there's a crisis. That's always the worst time to have a dispassionate conversation about procedure and philosophy. If you have that conversation at a dispassionate time and you don't think you've gotten the answers you like, it's well within your rights and your expectations to say to that sports editor that this has not been a very fulfilling conversation for me. How about if you and your managing editor and I sit down and talk about it. That way, you escalate the conversation to the next level up on the organizational chart, but you're not going behind somebody's back to do it. If anybody ever wants to discuss how we've covered something, I'll be happy to discuss it. If they don't think I've satisfied them, kick it up to my boss.
That should be part of the job that everybody is comfortable with and can go through.
I'm David Thomas from Morgan State University. As we touch on the common thread I've heard from this discussion on fairness, is it fair from a media standpoint, that they have information to be able to provide and information to a source for which they are investigating? I had an experience where a LA Times reporter had information for which they were investigating a situation at an institution. The reporter asked certain questions, but would not provide information about the end for which they were asking the questions. When the institution then responded there were doing their own investigation and there were no problems, the headline came out that an investigation by this institution had been whitewashed. This reporter, obviously, had information which, if they had provided to that institution, that information perhaps could have gone in the correct investigation for which the investigation was being looked at. So, is it an obligation of the media to assist along those lines by providing that information?
From the Panel
I think a reporter who's working on a story the nature of which you described has a responsibility to be up front about where you stand in the investigation. Is this a story that you plan to write for publication tomorrow or is it an on-going project? At the same time, reporters very often, understandably, will try to make it appear they are more knowledgeable, they have more information than they really have as a device to gain more information. You walk a fine line when you do that because you can run the risk of deceiving an individual that way. I do think it's clear that you have to inform them of that, certainly if you're going to run the story.
From the Panel
We ask our reporters to be forthcoming with the people they are discussing a situation with and we ask our reporters to be very open and not use trickery or any measure of that sort to get information. If we're writing a story on the University of Virginia and the direction of its athletics department, if we're talking to the athletics director, the reporter should say that we're writing a story on the direction of the University of Virginia's athletics department and we would like to ask you a few questions. You don't go and say we're writing a story on athletics departments around the country and we'd like to ask you a few questions. I think you should be very open and forthcoming, then you can be. There are times where you can't divulge everything, but whenever possible, do be open.
Jack Lengyel from the Naval Academy. This is a question about headline writers and the context of the story. Sometimes when you have a story and the headline is very titillating and possibly misleading and then you call the editor or the writer and the first comment they make is that they don't write the headline. What is the coordination between the headline writer and the story and is that reviewed within the context of the story? Sometimes the headline is a grabber and is misleading on a story in some instances.
That's a trick question, Jack, from a good friend. The fact is the reporter writes the story, the story goes to, in many cases, an assignment desk for a first read. In our case, we try to give every story two reads. It then goes to the copy desk and this is the same procedure of most newspapers of reasonable size. The copy editor will then read the story for content and grammar and I know you're all shocked at that. Finally, the copy editor will put a headline on the story and the copy editor has not had a discussion with the reporter, but the headline ought to at least describe the texture and tone of the story. I'm laughing because the Washington Wizards have been in contract negotiations with Leonard Hamilton. How do you make that an accurate headline? "Wizards Target Hamilton" sounds pretty good to me. You hope you're right.
At the end of each edition, we look at page proofs to make sure that the headlines are at least fair and somewhat accurate. I try to see a first edition every night to make sure the headlines are that way. Again, do we ever have some bombing headlines and some God-awful headlines? The answer is yes. Do we ever have some ridiculous headlines? The answer is yes, hopefully, not all editions. The fact is headlines are very tricky and copy editors will tell you they only hear from their bosses when they write a bad headline. That's probably not too far from the truth.
The process George describes is identical in our newsroom. Sometimes, I'll see a headline and wonder if the copy editor and the reporter were on the same planet. We've gotten to the point where we ask our reporters not to worry about the head count. You can't say everything you want in a headline. But to put on top of the story what they think they want to say. The copy editor won't just pick it up because they are trained to be good headline writers. At least you're not going to go off at a 90 degree angle from that. We also ask the copy editors to identify somewhere in that story where the guts of that headline are found on a factual basis. Don't just lift it from there because that may not always be the most interesting or enticing way to say it. At least you'll say it accurately and not distort the story. It's a great frustration for those of us who care about headlines.
Let me add one quick thing about what doesn't happen. The headline on any story in a sports section, I would say by-and-large, and I was in the daily newspaper business before I came to magazines, will not sell even one issue on a given day. What doesn't happen is somebody sitting at a desk saying, how can I write this really titillating or obscure headline so that somebody will buy the newspaper tomorrow morning. That's not the relationship between a consumer's decision to buy and not buy. For those of you who think that's the agenda of editors is to write the most overstated headline in hopes that will sell a newspaper, it's not nearly that complicated. It's a confluence of time, ability and the nature of a newsroom is very hectic under the best of conditions. Right now, hiring good editors is more difficult than it's been at any time in my career because there are so many more jobs out there. It's also the function of people you can get to do those jobs.
None of these gentlemen received any honorarium to be here and, given their stature and current roles, I think is very special that they took time out to fly down here just for this. No doubt, they're getting ready to get back on planes and fly back from whence they came, so let's give them our thanks.
Just a reminder as we close, the awards luncheon begins at 1230 p.m. Thank you.