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W&L Professor Examines Ethical Issues for Media on Sexual Abuse Stories

The intense media coverage of the allegations of child sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse universities has raised questions about various ethical issues that media must confront.

For Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, one of the most interesting questions concerns the proper relationship between media and the police.

This question has arisen in the Syracuse case, where two news organizations, ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard, have drawn criticism for not turning over information to the authorities regarding Syracuse University associate basketball coach Bernie Fine


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In 2003, both organizations had an audiotape on which Fine’s wife seemed to confirm some allegations made by one of the alleged victims. After apparently concluding that they lacked sufficient information to proceed, neither ESPN nor the Post-Standard published stories eight years ago. But neither did they turn the tapes over to law enforcement, and that decision is now in question.

Media reach dead ends on stories all the time, and for all kinds of reasons, Wasserman said, adding that it’s unfair to second guess a decision not publish.

“But I think it is a very legitimate question to ask, ‘If you’ve dead ended on this story and you have indications of this wrongdoing, then if you can’t pursue the story, why not give it over to someone who can?'” Wasserman said.

“The question is this: Is there some matter of professional ethics that absolutely forbids the collaboration between the media and the police that turning this information over would have required?” Wasserman said. “And I would say the answer is no. When it comes to this separation between the media and the authorities, I think you have to look more closely at why it’s a good thing, and when it might not be a good thing.

“There are good, solid, public-policy reasons for the press to defend zealously its independence from the police. That said, this was a situation where the media were not doing anything with the information. If there was no way that their own efforts would be compromised, it seems wrong, on a visceral level, for the media not to hand over information to people who might be able to do something with it.”

There is, he said, a tendency in the media to fall back on ethical formulas and rules rather than to look harder at what those formulas and rules are supposed to protect.

“When you look more closely at the principles here,” he said, “you find that this refusal to cooperate isn’t just a rule you invoke to forbid that kind of exchange across the board. Instead, it is important to look at the particulars of this situation and determine where the greatest benefit lies.”

Added Wasserman: “A major reason why news media keep their distance from police is to protect their informants and to ensure that other informants feel secure that they can come forward without being exposed. So a natural question arises in this case: What did the informant say? Would he object to having his information handed over to the police? Here, the answer seems to be no.”

He added that another reason for media to maintain their independence is so they can conduct their own investigation, gathering evidence of public importance regardless of whether it will be usable in court. “But here,” said Wasserman, “the media had dropped the investigation. So its claim to independence was really an insistence on its right to sit on evidence that, if developed, might have curtailed further harm.”

Both the Syracuse and Penn State cases have had other difficulties, Wasserman noted. In both cases, he said, cautioning people “that the jury is out and that nothing has been proven is a weak response to the natural criticism that you’ve just destroyed somebody’s reputation by repeating these charges that may turn out to be groundless.

“At least in the Penn State case, the most damaging allegations are contained in a document (from a grand jury) that the press is free to draw upon. That puts a tremendous stamp of plausibility on it,” said Wasserman. “The Syracuse story is trickier since it was based, at least at the outset, on an unsubstantiated allegation that had not been investigated by the police.”

Moreover, the very nature of the stories raises the stakes considerably, Wasserman said. “When it comes to sexual abuse of minors, abuse of office for sexual advantage and the various kinds of things that are being alleged here, the possibility of doing harm without adequate basis is strong,” he said. “And that, of course, is a tremendous deterrent to the media, because whatever people might think about the press, reporters aren’t in the business of needlessly destroying people.

The stories both have what Wasserman terms an “ick” factor. “They’re squalid, they’re nasty, they have pitfalls,” he said. “These are not the kinds of stories that reporters see and go, ‘Oh, boy, I can’t wait to write about this.'”