Are Insurance Companies Redlining Journalists?
By Carol Napolitano
Carol Napolitano is a special projects reporter and the computer-assisted journalism coordinator for the Times in Munster, Indiana.
Jennifer Cray and her husband, Marc Igler, had just welcomed a brand new baby girl into their family when the letter from the Automobile Club of Southern California arrived last July. The computer-generated note was brief but to the point. The company was canceling the couple's homeowner's policy because Igler's "occupation as newspaper editor is an unacceptable exposure," the letter said.
Igler, who works for the Daily Breeze in Torrance, California, usually spends his days behind a desk assigning and editing stories. "It was just hilarious that they targeted an assistant city editor," Cray says, "I mean, who could be more anonymous?"
John Getter, a special projects reporter for KHOU-TV in Houston, received a similar letter about his newly acquired homeowner's policy from Security National Insurance Co. Getter said his agent told him the underwriter asked, "'Isn't this the guy who went to South America and did that story on killer bees?' And the agent said, 'Yeah, so what's that got to do with homeowner's insurance?' The underwriter replied, 'We just don't want people like that.'"
Steve Brown, now of WKBW-TV in Buffalo, was a general assignment reporter for WGRZ-TV in Buffalo when Commercial Union Insurance Company, which has insured his car for the previous four-and-a-half years, canceled his renter's insurance policy, citing "occupational liability."
Æray and Igler found other policies, as did Brown and Getter. Yet the question remains whether their cases, and a few others like them, are isolated incidents or an ominous sign of what is to come.
For years journalists have had trouble getting umbrella liability insurance because it includes libel coverage. This often has been the case even when libel insurance already is provided by the news organization for which the journalist works.
But denial of basic coverage to protect a home appears to be new. Industry representatives say that there is currently no uniform policy denying journalists homeowner's insurance.
Greg Christopher, executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, and Rosemary Armao, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, say no one has contacted their organizations about being denied property insurance. But, they saj, they recently became aware of specific cases discussed among journalists on Internet bulletin boards.
Some journalists feel even the handful of cases that have cropped up may be indicative of a larger problem.
Bruce Shapiro, associate editor at the Nation, fears the situation could have "a chilling effect" on the journalism profession. "For people with families and homes, simply not being able to get the basic insurance coverage you need is very intimidating," he says, "It could really force people to make the hard choice to give up the craft or not undertake it at all."
"I think this is a real First Amendment issue," Shapiro says. "It seems to me, as journalists, we should be looking at some laws to protect the First Amendment and to protect our readers who aren't going to get good journalism if the good journalists are getting scared out of the profession by insurance companies."
Steve Stecklow, national education writer for the Wall Street Journal, was rejected for an umbrella liability policy during the mid-1980s because of his job as an investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He says denying insurance based on profession "smacks of redlining against journalists that may very well be discriminatory."
One solution offered by Shapiro and others is to form an industry-wide self-insurance pool. Some limited self-insurance already exists. SPJ, for example, offers health coverage and is looking into the possibility of selling libel insurance, says Christopher. If enough journalists contact SPJ with problems getting property or life insurance, he says, the organization will consider offering those types as well.
Another option is to fight the industry directly. Igler and Cray charged occupational discrimination when they filed a complaint with the California Department of Insurance. But Kirk Nitz, the state associate underwriting officer who handled the couple's complaint, said insurers do have the right to refuse coverage based on profession alone.
"The word 'discrimination' has a bad connotation, but insurance companies are allowed to discriminate," Nitz says. "They just can't engage in what's called unfair discrimination. So if they want to adopt a policy [of banning journalists], they have to apply it uniformly. If they single out one reporter or one editor and won't write them a policy, or they make an exception for somebody, then that's unfair discrimination."
None of the insurance companies nor the Society of Actuaries, which constructs actuary tables for insurers nationwide, offered any statistical or anecdotal evidence that journalists are a higher risk than other customers.
But Susan Miura, director of public affairs for the Alliance of American Insurers, says plaintiffs in libel suits often will go after personal property, such as a home, even if the journalist they are suing has libel coverage through his or her news organization.
If such concerns are the case, however, insurers are reluctant to say so.
Alan Morris, director of underwriting for the Automobile Club of Southern California – which canceled Cray's and Igler's policy and then offered it back to them after they obtained other insurance – says his company would consider denying insurance to those who "are likely targets for slander or libel suits. But in the case of an assistant city editor for a local newspaper," he says, "I would very seriously question whether that kind of exposure exists."
A spokeswoman for Trinity Universal Insurance Cos., which owns the insurer that initially denied Getter but eventually admitted to a faulty decision, says only that this was "an unfortunate occurrence."
So for now, it seems, insurers are admitting only to making mistakes.