Exclusive Article September, 1997

Newspaper Invades Seminole Country: Part 2

An Ethical Nightmare
For The St. Pete Times

By Dr. Maury Breecher

Do the ends justify the means when a newspaper investigates whether wrongdoing has been done?

The Seminole Tribune has charged that the St. Petersburg Times used questionable, possibly unethical or even illegal methods during its ongoing investigation of Seminole Tribe leadership and spending practices. Tribal leaders believe that the Times has invaded the privacy of employees by "hacking" into the tribe's computer records. They are also disturbed that the St. Petersburg Times has been actively soliciting tribal employees to leak documents anonymously.

"The Key To Your House"

The charges involve issues involving both law and journalism ethics. Since I am not an attorney, I will devote most of this article to the ethical questions raised by the Times investigative methods. However, IF it is proven that the Times hacked into the tribe's business and personnel records then, to use the words of Ernie Slone, Technology Editor of the Orange County Register, Santa Ana, Ca., "Not only would it be unethical, it would also be illegal. Just because someone gives you a password doesn't make any difference.

"Consider: What if someone gave me a key to your house and I used it to just 'look around?' Under law, I would be committing unauthorized breaking and entering. The laws are just as strict about breaking into a company or agency's computers."

Before discussing the ethical considerations raised by the Times investigation, it is important to define the terms we will be using. Ethics, for instance, is the branch of philosophy concerned with moral values and practices of right and wrong. Applied ethics is the application of agreed on values to human relationships and transactions. As Socrates is quoted as saying in Plato's Republic: "We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live."

It should be emphasized that ethical principles are not the same as laws. "Ethical constraints are NOT the same as legal rules. There is a common tendency today to equate ethical standards with legal standards, and for victims of unethical behavior to seek legal remedies for perceived ethical lapses. This is a false equation and a fundamental misconception of the relationship between law and ethics. . . Ethics articulates what we ought to do to be moral individuals and professionals while laws concentrates on the bottom line below which we should not fail," according to Doing Ethics in Journalism, a handbook published by the prestigious Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

Thus ethics imposes a higher standard of conduct on journalists than does law. For instance, "invasion-of-privacy laws widely permit the publication of information that for reasons of ethics, taste, compassion, or professionalism, some news media would not publish or broadcast," explains the SPJ ethics handbook.

Poor Journalism

To back up its charges of improper reporting practices by the St. Petersburg Times, the Seminole Tribune has previously published extracts from a letter sent to select Tribal employees. The letter was written by Brad Goldstein, who identifies himself as a "Computer Assisted Reporting Editor." The version of the letter printed by the Tribune was sent to Patricia Diamond, secretary to Tribal Chairman James Billie. Basically the letter and similar letters sent to other tribal employees, actively solicits recipients to provide confidential tribal documents to the St. Petersburg newspaper.

Surprisingly, at least to journalism experts, the letter emphasizes that potential whistle blowers could send documents anonymously. Goldstein wrote, "If copies of these documents were to arrive in an envelope that has no return address on it, the truth will get out and there will be no trace. Anonymity is crucial. Your name will never come up." Furthermore, Goldstein even suggested that Patricia Diamond (and perhaps recipients of similar letters) could send him typewritten, anonymous notes. He also made a promise he might not be able to keep-since no one can predict the future-when he guarantees; "Your name will never come up."

This up-front promise of anonymity is poor journalism because it compromises what the Times might learn using this method. If Goldstein were to receive information anonymously under the rules he has set up, what good is it? How can he verify that whatever is sent to him is accurate? He would have to assume it was from the same person he sent the letter to. Thus, she wouldn't be anonymous to him.

Tribal leaders believe Goldstein sent similar letters to others connected with the Tribe. If he did-and if he received information or comments anonymously through the mail-he wouldn't know whom to approach to verify the material. He has no way of checking to determine whether the person sending the note is lying or telling the truth.

Even more damming for this method of investigative reporting is the fact that the reporter has no way to evaluate an anonymous source's ability to select and judge what to send to the reporter. The reporter and his editors must ask themselves if the potential whistle blower is really in a position to know what is going on or does the anonymous source just think he or she knows?

For example, often secretaries have access to documents but don't know how to interpret them. If the potential whistle blower weren't involved when the document was created, he or she wouldn't know the context or the reasons for document. Not being in a leadership or need-to-know position, a whistle blower could easily misconstrue documents.

Documents received via the ground rules specified in the letter would also be suspect because they may have been forged or taken out of context. A reporter who receives documents anonymously can't just assume that those documents are valid and that what they contain is truthful and accurate. Before using such material, a good reporter has to be able to collaborate it with other sources, either people who knew how and why the documents were created or with other documents that he knows are true because they came from official sources.

Selection Bias

Another problem with gathering information this way is what is called "selection bias." People who would be more likely to cooperate would be those who are unhappy with the Tribe's leadership, people who already agree with the premise that "tribal members are being hurt by irresponsible leaders." However, people who disagree with that premise, will think, "There's no way I am going to get a fair shake" and simply refuse to comply to the request for documents. This type of bias can invalidate the results gathered, especially since there is no way to determine who sent the material and whether it was real or made up.

Because of problems such as these, promises of anonymity or source confidentiality should be given rarely. The premature offering of anonymity to sources damages the trust the reader has in the Press, points out Philip Seib, Ph.D. a Professor of Journalism at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and author of a recently published textbook entitled, Journalism Ethics. He writes, "Whenever a journalist uses information from an unidentified source, the news consumer is being deprived of the ability to make an independent judgment about the information's credibility . . . News consumers . . . want to make up their own minds, and that requires knowing where the information came from."

The opposite of anonymity is full disclosure and attribution of statements. It is a mark of good journalism when reporters tell their readers as much as they can about the people who provided information in the story. Only in that way, the reader can judge the credibility of the sources.

Most newspapers have policies that promises of confidentiality should only be made as a last resort. In other words, a reporter must have tried every other method to gain the desired information before promising a source anonymity. Tribal employees, who received versions of the Goldstein letter, say they had not previously been contacted by the Times reporter.

Several days after receiving the letter from Goldstein, Patricia Diamond says she was contacted by the St. Petersburg Times "computer-assisted reporting editor" who had somehow discovered her unlisted phone number. He attempted to start a conversation by making small talk about her West Virginia hometown. "That bothered me," Diamond told the Seminole Tribune. "I wondered how he found out (where I grew up)?" During that phone call, according to Diamond, Goldstein started to make allegations of wrongdoing by tribal leaders. "I got the feeling he wanted me to affirm things he was saying. I didn't say anything. When he finished talking, I politely said 'good-bye' and hung up."

A "Clandestine" Letter

What do investigative journalism and ethics experts think about the letter and the reporting methods used by the St. Petersburg Times? Ironically, one such expert works at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit educational organization that owns the St. Petersburg Times. The Poynter Institute is respected for its many professional development seminars for journalists including courses on media ethics. Although the Poynter Institute is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the paper, the Goldstein letter troubles a media ethics expert employed by the Institute.

Keith Woods, former city editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, is a Poynter Institute "ethics associate" often teaches journalism ethics to professional journalists. Told about the letter -- before being informed that it was sent by a St. Petersburg Times reporter -- Woods stated, "It appears to me that their methods smack of desperation. The tone of the letter bothers me. It does not sound like a professional letter."

In a professional letter, a journalist would explain something that he has "tried everything possible and that approaching potential sources this way was his only alternative," explained Woods, who characterized the letter as sounding "clandestine."

"It seems to be winking at the acquisition of information by any means necessary," Woods mused. " I think that what it is saying is, 'I don't want to know how you get what you send me.'"

Another expert on media ethics, Dr. Louis Hodges, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington & Lee University, Lexington, VA, is also troubled by the up-front promise of confidentiality. "Ethically speaking I don't see anything wrong with sending a source a letter, yet it is not good policy to grant general anonymity before knowing precisely what it is that this person might have access to."

Explained Professor Hodges, "The reporter is assuming that the people in the tribe are being hurt by irresponsible leadership. He is making what amounts to a guarantee of anonymity in advance. He has promised that this source will not be identified no matter what the information is. It is very rare for that to be done.

"From the reporter's point of view, it is very risky. It puts the source in a position to feed the newspaper whatever a source wants to."

Aspects of the letter also bother still another authority on journalism ethics. Jay Black, Ph.D., a professor and occupant of the Jamison-Poynter Chair in Journalism Ethics at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, FL., is concerned about the effect such news gathering techniques have on naive sources. "The uninitiated and naive who receive this letter may be left with the impression that this is standard journalistic procedure, that this is the way news is always gathered. It leads the uninitiated to the conclusion that we are a duplicitous profession."

Dr. Black was bemused by the blunt tone of the letter. "I have never heard of anybody being as specific in what they propose. Why didn't they help the person receiving the letter feel committed to revealing the truth rather than emphasize the avoidance of some sort of punishment? If I were to receive such a letter I would be very uncomfortable."

"I would think a letter like that would start with a quick summary of the problem and not immediately put the person receiving the letter in a position of discomfort. Instead, it should seek to put the potential source at ease by explaining what the reporter believes is the nature of the problem and why that source's particular information or insight is needed."

"Accuracy and Fairness"

As of the writing of this Op-Ed piece, the St. Petersburg Times has NOT yet published the results of its investigation. Before it does, perhaps that newspaper's editors should review a chapter entitled "Accuracy and Fairness," from the SPJ's Doing Ethics handbook. The chapter states that "accuracy and fairness stand at the very heart of journalism. Accuracy means 'getting it right' . . . To provide wrong information is a disservice to the public and a sure way to erode the credibility of journalism . . . Fairness means pursuing the truth with both vigor and compassion, and reporting information without favoritism, self-interest, or prejudice. . . Accuracy and fairness also mean portraying individuals and issues with a basic sense of open-mindedness, avoiding biased reporting, stereotypical portrayal, and unsubstantiated allegations."

The ethics handbook also advises journalists to "Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truth telling."

The Doing Ethics handbook also has a checklist of ethical guidelines having to do with "Source/Reporter Relationships." For instance the handbook states, "Do not abuse naive news sources . . . Don't put words in their mouths . . . don't let them dictate to you only the story they want to tell . . . Before promising confidentiality, try to obtain the same information from sources willing to be quoted . . . Always bear in mind the power of the press when dealing with sources. You are in a position to cause harm or benefit. Use that power with great discretion."

Finally, the SPJ ethics handbook asks, "Are you willing to spell out in your news stories the methods you used to gain information from sources, and why you may be protecting confidentiality?"

It's hard to see how soliciting people to leak documents by promising the anonymity can lead to improved truth telling. In fact, granting anonymity often backfires on the Press. Millions of people are influenced by what they read in newspapers, yet this influence can last only as long as the public believes in the overall morality of the media. When a newspaper, especially one as prominent as the St. Petersburg Times, appears to be acting without ethical considerations, credibility of the entire field of journalism suffers.

Dr. Breecher has a doctorate in Mass Communication from the University of Alabama. His doctoral dissertation was "Newspaper Codes of Ethics, What They Say, How Do They Say It, and What Happens if Minimal Standards Are Not Met?" Breecher has written articles for Editor & Publisher and many other publications.

Part III -- What The St. Petersburg Times Has Found Out -- Coming soon on this web site and in the Seminole Tribune