How Pushy Is Too Pushy?
Florida TV reporter sued for invasion of privacy.
By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
GOOD AGGRESSIVE REPORTING or cold-hearted invasion of privacy? Now it's up to a Florida judge to decide.
In the lawsuit Sisser vs. Unruh and Post-Newsweek Stations Inc., both sides agree that WPLG-Channel 10 reporter Jilda Unruh visited the Miami hospital room of lobbyist Eric Sisser on May 8 as he awaited treatment for a heart condition. Unruh then asked Sisser about his role in a controversial land deal. An angry Sisser asked Unruh to leave his room, and a lawsuit was born.
According to media reports, Sisser alleges that Unruh sneaked into his room and harassed him with her inquiries, upsetting him so much that his blood pressure rose dangerously and he needed a nitroglycerin drip. Unruh and her television station say she was invited into Sisser's chamber after knocking. With no camera or tape recorder in hand, she asked Sisser a few questions until he asked her to go.
Sisser obtained a 30-day restraining order against Unruh and her colleagues at the Miami ABC affiliate. The full lawsuit, which claims invasion of privacy and emotional distress and seeks unspecified monetary damages, is pending.
The case prompts the question, How far should reporters go for a story?
The Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins says journalists have to ask themselves a basic question before going that extra step: "How does the truth I'm finding weigh against the harm I'm causing?" In some cases, he says, slightly out-of-bounds tactics are justified. "We do intrude, but we can justify it by the justice we seek," Tompkins says.
In a recent case, a Florida state attorney killed himself as Tampa and St. Petersburg media were uncovering the truth about his gambling habits and many personal loans (see "Feeling the Heat"). The journalists had asked for records of the man's Internet use, information he may have thought was private but had been viewed on a government-owned computer. The journalists were right to press for the information, Tompkins says. "It was a really important story," he says. "It was a justified story."
And Tompkins doesn't think overaggressiveness is rampant in the profession. "The big problem is we're not aggressive enough," he says. "We don't seek enough truths. We tend to shoot our big elephant guns at stories that don't deserve it."
Max Cacas, senior online producer for the Freedom Forum, says the WPLG story didn't call for this intrusion. Even if the events occurred exactly as Unruh claims, she crossed the line, he says. "She still went to a hospital. People are sick in hospitals, and they're not always at their best." If Cacas was Unruh's producer, he adds, Sisser "would have to be an ax murderer before I gave her a bye for what she did."
Unruh is known as an aggressive investigator, garnering the nickname "Pitbull in Pumps" early in her 15-year-plus career. She's won numerous awards for her work, including four Emmys for investigative reporting, according to her station bio.
Unruh says she can't talk about the incident because of the lawsuit, and WPLG management did not return AJR's calls seeking comment.
In other published accounts, WPLG News Director Bill Pohovey has said that Unruh was working on the story involving Sisser for more than a year and had tried unsuccessfully to reach him for weeks. He called her handling of the matter "professional."
Sisser's attorney, Steve Silverman, did not return AJR's phone calls.
Ambush reporting fell out of favor long ago, says Gary Hill, director of investigations and special segments at KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities and chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee. "The standards have changed over the years. We're less apt to chase someone down the street, firing questions at them," he says.
Seeking interviews in hospitals is nothing new. After any natural disaster or tragedy, the halls of local emergency rooms are lined with reporters seeking a quote from a family member or a survivor. But such reporting is done on deadline and under "materially different circumstances," Hill says.
Cacas notes Unruh's story did not possess the sense of urgency needed to push her into Sisser's sick room. "This story could easily have waited until this man was well again," he says.
Cacas, who spent more than 20 years as a radio reporter, says he can't remember doing anything more outrageous than demanding entrance to a public meeting that officials were trying to keep him out of.
Hill, a 25-year-plus veteran of television news, also has a hard time recalling a similarly bold move in his past. "I can't say we've never taken aggressive tactics, but it's hard to imagine going into that hospital room to conduct an interview," Hill says.
Fred Brown, co-chair of SPJ's ethics committee, says he gets three or four calls a week about "journalists doing strange things," like posing as police officers. The Sisser/Unruh spat sounds like a case of "he said, she said" to him. "Who are you going to believe? We're dealing with two groups not held in very high esteem: journalists and lobbyists," says Brown, chief of the state capital bureau at the Denver Post.
Perhaps the whole debacle could have been avoided if Unruh had tried a telephone interview instead. "Anytime there's a journalist involved in a questionable situation, journalism gets a black eye," Brown says. "In this case, we might deserve it."