By Jefferson Flanders

I once heard Abe Rosenthal, former editor of the New York Times, explain his simple test for fairness in a front-page news story: would you be comfortable with the balance and tone of the reporting if a close family member was the subject of the article? The story was fair if you could answer yes.

Rosenthal’s point was, I think, that a journalistic Golden Rule of sorts should apply in reporting on the foibles and failings of others. That didn’t mean that reporters or editors shied away from publishing or broadcasting hard things about people, but that journalistic ethics demanded that they should recognize the great potential for personal damage in what they might report, and guard against carelessness or hasty conclusions.

I found myself thinking about Rosenthal’s simple test (one I have cited many times in teaching journalism) when considering the ugly headline from the Sunday, April 22, Santa Barbara News-Press: “News-Press seeks exam of computer used by ex-editor Roberts containing child porn,” which carried the sub-headline, “Roberts denies involvement.”

If you read the article, which is centered on the newspaper’s former executive editor Jerry Roberts, and review the pertinent details of the situation (some only found in other newspapers), you have to conclude that this is a story that, on the grounds of fairness and transparency, never should have been published.

A glaring omission from the story was its silence on the high-stakes legal dispute between Roberts and the newspaper’s owner, Wendy P. McCaw, one prompted by his abrupt departure from the News-Press last year in a conflict over journalistic ethics. (More on that dispute here.) Readers deserved to know that background, as the News-Press has a potential conflict-of-interest in covering the matter. Further, any claims of wrong-doing during an employment dispute have to be viewed with healthy skepticism.

Facts that would lessen the focus on Roberts weren’t reported. The story never stated directly that the workplace computer in question had been used by at least two other News-Press editors before Roberts. The article had to concede that the Santa Barbara district attorney had not filed any charges, largely because multiple users of the computer made it impossible to trace to any one person the more than 15,000 downloaded images of child and adult pornography. Even Roberts’ denial was undercut; the News-Press article stated: “Mr. Roberts hired a private expert to give him a lie detector test which the expert claimed he passed.” (Note the use of the verb “claimed,” rather than the more neutral “said.”)

For his part, as the Los Angeles Times reported, Roberts vehemently denied any link to the pornography and demanded a retraction: “The story was false, defamatory and malicious and published with knowledge it was untrue.” His attorney denied that Roberts had refused to cooperate with police, as the News-Press story reported. Roberts indicated that if the News-Press didn’t retract the story, he would consider suing for defamation.

An attorney for Ampersand Publishing (McCaw’s holding company through which she controls the News-Press) defended the article, “saying the company was concerned that a crime had been committed.” To date, no retraction has been published, and Ampersand has continued legal efforts to obtain and “conduct forensic tests on the hard drive of the computer” which is still in the possession of the authorities.

Issues of transparency and guilt-by-association

Whether Roberts ends up suing Ampersand for libel or not, there are several significant ethical issues raised by the story. The first disturbing issue is the article’s lack of transparency. There is no by-line on the story. We don’t know who did the reporting or who wrote the story; apparently no journalist was willing to sign his or her name to the article and accept personal responsibility or accountability.

And as the New York Times noted in its coverage, the article is silent about the legal fight between Roberts and McCaw: “Ms. McCaw has filed a claim of $25 million against Mr. Roberts for breach of contract; he has filed a counterclaim of $10 million for damages.” Roberts has argued that the article is meant to damage him “during arbitration over the competing legal claims.”

The second, and more important, issue is the question of guilt-by-association— how the headline and story tarnishes Roberts even as it acknowledges that he “denies involvement.” Being linked with child pornography in any way is incredibly damaging to one’s reputation. There were numerous people with access to the computer in question, the district attorney concluded that he couldn’t pursue charges, and yet only Roberts was named in the story. The implication isn’t lost on the reader.

News-Press management apparently decided that there was enough news value in its legal efforts to retrieve the hard drive to publish a story; it chose to name only Jerry Roberts among the users of the computer; it elected to report that Roberts had refused to cooperate with police (something Roberts denies); it chose to publish the story in the widely-distributed Sunday paper. That meant that Roberts would be denying a connection to child pornography on the front page of the newspaper he once edited. Whoever approved the article had to know the potential devastating impact of this linkage on Roberts’ reputation and standing in the community.

Failing the fairness test

The News-Press story on Jerry Roberts doesn’t pass the Rosenthal fairness test, or meet any of the ethical standards of the codes meant to govern responsible journalism. (One of principles of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is: “Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”) Given the circumstances, I can’t imagine how any fair-minded editor would run with such a story.

So it’s not surprising that the News-Press has faced wide-spread criticism, not only from journalists but also from members of its own community, many who termed the story a smear. The weekly Santa Barbara Independent has defended Roberts, running a gutsy front-page headline, “Have You No Shame, Mrs. McCaw?”, an echo of Boston lawyer Joseph Welch’s stinging rebuke of Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

While I’m no fan of libel suits (as they are sometimes employed to chill freedom of expression), I can see why Roberts would consider that option. Who can blame him for seeking redress, whether in the court of public opinion, or through a lawsuit? How much, after all, is a reputation worth?

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Santa Barbara News-Press some twenty years ago, briefly, when it was owned by the New York Times Company. I do not know Jerry Roberts.

Reprinted from Neither Red Nor Blue

Copyright 2007 Jefferson Flanders

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