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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Calling the Cops   

ESPN and Syracuse’s Post-Standard were pummeled for failing to tell police about a tape regarding sexual abuse allegations against a Syracuse University coach. But when it comes to providing evidence to law enforcement officials, the bar for news organizations is quite high. Tues., April 3, 2012.

By Cary Spivak
Contributing writer Cary Spivak (cspivak01@gmail.com) is an investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, focusing on business issues. He explored the question of when journalists should share information with law enforcement authorities in AJR’s Spring 2012 issue.      

In a newsroom, deciding whether to call the cops is never an easy call.

Whether it's a reporter learning the identity of a killer or coming across information indicating a person's life may be at risk, the decision on crossing the thin blue line separating the news media from the authorities is always an agonizing one.

"It's an unresolved debate and discussion that's been around about as long as journalism has been practiced," says Michael J. Connor,

Connor should know. Last fall, he was thrust into the center of a national controversy when it was disclosed that the Post-Standard and ESPN each had received copies of a secretly recorded conversation between the wife of then-Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine and Bobby Davis, a man who claimed Fine had sexually abused him in the early 1980s when he was a ball boy.

The tape — which was made in 2002 with the prior knowledge and support of the Post-Standard — lacks a definitive gotcha moment. In the conversation, Fine's wife, Laurie Fine, is heard making comments that seem to support Davis' allegations, but she falls short of naming names or voicing explicit details.

In a November 30 blog post, Connor said turning over the tape or information the paper gathered in its investigation was not an option. "To us, handing over to police materials we didn't feel confident enough to publish was unimaginable," he wrote.

Connor acknowledges surprise at the furor that erupted when the tape surfaced last year after the Syracuse paper and ESPN ultimately ran stories on the allegations. Law enforcement officials, advocates of abuse victims and some in the media criticized the two news outlets, with some suggesting that alerting authorities should have been a no-brainer. "How do you not take it to the police?" former ESPN anchor Dan Patrick asked on his Fox Sports Radio show. "I know you want to break the story, but you have to take it to the police... There could be other victims involved."

But contacting the authorities under such circumstances is not nearly as easy a decision as Patrick suggests. News outlets have traditionally functioned as independent truth-seekers. Their credibility could be compromised if they are seen as arms of the police. And other issues can come into play. What if a reporter is investigating the possibility of official corruption or incompetence in the case at hand? What if the information came to the reporter from a confidential source?

That doesn't mean journalists should never turn information over, particularly if lives are at stake. But the threshold for doing so is high.

"The boundary between being a journalist and a citizen observer can be very blurred," says Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and a former newspaper editor. "You don't want to relinquish thoughtlessly the status you have as an independent" observer. "We can be a sanctuary for people. We're in the business of handling sensitive information."

Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, acknowledged as much in a November 28 blog item. "All journalists could be asking themselves this very same question: What role should journalists play in providing information that may or may not have been reported?" the ESPN executive asked. "It's complex, and something we must continue to evaluate." Doria declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even information that many in the public would think warrants immediately calling 911 could cause hand-wringing in a newsroom. Take, for example, a 2005 case recalled by Hanke Gratteau, a former managing editor/news at the Chicago Tribune.

Sometime after U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lefkow returned to her North Side Chicago home to find her husband and mother had been murdered, a Tribune tip line received an e-mail that made threatening comments about another federal judge, recalls Gratteau, who was the paper's metro editor at the time.

The paper did contact the FBI — though the call was not made until the issue was vetted among editors and a lawyer, Gratteau says. Even then, the paper was cautious. It provided the FBI with a printout of the e-mail but required a subpoena before providing additional information to track down the sender, Gratteau says.

"We weren't going to willingly turn over our Internet system," she says. "But we couldn't take the chance that it was some mindless nothing or a hollow threat. We asked ourselves, 'How are we going to feel if something bad happened and we did nothing?'"

Gratteau, who now works for a nonprofit agency, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, says there are occasions when getting the story takes a backseat to other demands. "There just are times when your duty as a citizen, as neighbor and parent, does trump the fine line," she says. But, she adds, "The occasions are rare."

Bob Steele, director of the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, says many factors must be weighed before a newsroom contacts the authorities. Human life ranks at the top of that list. "Saving that life or saving somebody from very serious harm could trump journalistic purpose," Steele says. Still, he offers a better way to notify authorities than calling them. "It's best to get the story out" and let the authorities see the information with the rest of the public.

Sometimes that may not be possible, says Steve Patterson, who has been on both sides of the blue line, for 17 years as a reporter in Indiana and at the Chicago Sun-Times, then working as spokesman for the Cook County, Illinois, sheriff from 2008 to 2011.

Though reporters may not like to admit it, there are times when journalists do provide information to the police. They may offer it outright or a little more subtly.

Just as reporters look for unintentional tips when talking on background with sources, that relationship is a two-way street — especially when reporters are talking to law enforcement types, says Patterson, who is now a vice president of Res Publica Group, a Chicago public relations firm. "That sort of casual conversation on both sides happens all the time," he says. "You may not see it as 'I'm giving information to a law enforcement agency,' but a lot of times, that's what it is."

Information, and favors, are often shared through deal-making between cops and reporters, says David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun police reporter who went on to create "The Wire," the much-praised HBO series that looked at the seamier side of several Baltimore institutions, including police, City Hall and the media. For example, Simon says a reporter may agree to withhold a bit of innocuous information from a story in exchange for a later exclusive. "It's not as if it's a pristine world; there's gamesmanship and bartering that happens every day," Simon says. "If you engage in this, you got to be careful what you're doing, so you don't barter away your own interests."

Sometimes, Patterson says, reporters called him with information after they felt they had hit a brick wall. As an example, he recalls a scandal involving two Chicago-area cemeteries.

In the wake of the revelation in 2009 that hundreds of bodies at Burr Oak Cemetery in suburban Chicago had been dug up and dumped in a weed-filled area so the plots could be resold, Patterson says, a couple of Chicagoland reporters got tips that similar abuses were happening at another area cemetery, Homewood Memorial Gardens. "They said, 'We looked into this and we can't find anything — maybe you could find something,'" Patterson says.

Though the reporters couldn't take credit for conducting an investigation of Homewood Memorial, their tip did result in action, Patterson says. A year ago, he says, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart disclosed that his department had discovered that the bodies of indigent men and women had been placed in mass graves at the cemetery. Patterson credits the reporters with alerting law enforcement. "It was not on our radar" until the reporters asked about it, he says.

But neither ESPN nor the Post-Standard turned their tapes over to police after their reporters spent many fruitless months investigating Davis' claims about Fine, a highly regarded coach who was fired in November after the Post-Standard and ESPN reported the allegations against him. Neither outlet gathered enough conclusive information to go with a story in the months after receiving the Davis tape. It wasn't until last fall — after the Penn State sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky dominated the national news for weeks (see "Slow to React," Fall 2011) — that others came forward claiming they had been abused by Fine. Shortly afterward, ESPN and the paper disclosed they had each separately received the Davis tape nearly a decade earlier.

Syracuse's Connor says the tape is not as strong a piece of evidence as some critics make it sound. During an hour-long telephone interview, Connor explained that his reporters interviewed police when they investigated Davis' claims, though they did not disclose existence of the now notorious tape. "The tape was not as a big deal at the time as a lot of people have made it out to be today," he says, explaining that Bernie Fine's wife made no comments that clearly incriminated her husband. Connor notes that Davis — who had gone to police before talking to the media and making the recording — "did not go to police to say, 'Now I have the proof I need'... It's not like he felt it was a smoking pistol."

Connor says media outlets have to be cautious about cooperating with police to protect their credibility as well as their position as a place to go for people who don't trust or are not happy with the authorities. "Once you begin to share information with law enforcement, where do you stop? Where do you draw that line?" Connor asks. "You risk changing your role in a free society."

With the benefit of hindsight, Connor says he still thinks not going to the police was the right decision. If he had it to do over again, he says, he would have taken steps to help link Davis to an advocate for victims of such behavior. An advocate would be "somebody not focused on the journalism who could have a conversation with him to see what could be done on his behalf," Connor says. "We basically shut the door on him."

Wasserman, the Washington and Lee ethicist, agrees the independent role of the press is one worth protecting, even when it may feel uncomfortable to do so. "People have to be able to talk to you, and there are a lot of very good reasons for people to do so when the press is doing its job," Wasserman says. "It's kind of a sanctuary for people to go to when they don't trust government."

That is especially true when authorities are seen as part of the problem, as they have been in the Penn State scandal, in which the late, legendary football coach Joe Paterno and high-ranking university and law enforcement officials have been chastised for not acting aggressively when reports of Sandusky's misconduct surfaced. Questions also have been raised about the actions of Syracuse University in connection with the allegations against Fine.

"In many cases, part of the system that you are holding accountable is law enforcement," DePauw's Steele says. "At that point, the possible story is about the indifference, not only of the coach, but about the system and whether the system in Syracuse, New York, responded properly."

Tipping off the police about the tape would have made it impossible to pursue that angle, Steele says. "You cannot partner with law enforcement if you are also holding them accountable," he says. "If you're the watchdog, you can't go to the fox and say, 'Here's what we're learning from the chickens.' "

But what about the victims or potential victims? asks Gordon Bassham, who, like Patterson, has worked on both sides of the street. Bassham was a radio reporter in Washington, D.C., Florida, Texas and Kansas for 23 years before joining the Garden City Police Department in western Kansas as a uniformed officer at age 54. He eventually became assistant to the chief of the Wichita Police Department.

"I'm a human being first, a journalist second and a cop third," says Bassham, now executive director of the Wichita Crime Commission. "Everybody, not just those in specific professions, has an obligation that when there is a strong belief that a crime has been committed, especially one against a child...there is an obligation to report that to authorities."

Even if the reporter is working on an exclusive that will take time to develop before it can be published, broadcast or posted? "One of the things that has always mystified me," Bassham replies, "is just how important are the bragging rights to the exclusivity of a story as far as the public is concerned. My perspective as a citizen is that I couldn't care less."

In a follow-up e-mail, Bassham continued to bemoan the industry's obsession with being first. "I strongly believe competition is journalism's worst enemy," he wrote. "As a result of competition, many news organizations focus more on the exclusivity of their story and less on the quality of their reporting or protecting the public from future harm by reporting criminal activity."

Indeed, Wasserman says, a journalist's desire to protect an exclusive may ring hollow when doing so puts someone at risk. "Exclusiveness," he says, "is not something that has strong ethical standing."

Bassham is hardly alone in questioning whether the story is more important than the well-being of an individual: Mike Royko did so in a 1981 column. When the Washington Post's Pulitzer-winning story about an 8-year-old boy who was forced to use heroin turned out to be a fraud, the legendary Chicago columnist was among the many who assailed the Post. But Royko had a take very different from that of many of the critics, who chastised the Post for believing Janet Cooke, the reporter who wrote the story. Royko went after the Post because its editors believed Cooke and yet did nothing about the situation she had "uncovered."

If he had been Cooke's editor, Royko wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, he would have told her: "I want the name of the kid now. I want the name of the mother. I want the name of the guy giving the kid heroin. We're going to call the cops right now, and we're going to have that sonofabitch put in jail, and we're going to save that kid's life. After we do that, then we'll have a story."

Gratteau, a close friend of Royko and a onetime assistant to the columnist, wasn't working for him when the Cooke story fell apart. But she remembers her old boss' anger about the episode. "Mike was just outraged. He was just flabbergasted that an editor had relied on what she had seen and didn't ask the institutional question of 'What are we going to do about this?'" says Gratteau, who took a buyout from the Tribune in 2008.

Simon has little time for such outrage. "That's sanctimonious bullshit. You are a storyteller, not an agent of law enforcement," says Simon, who spent a year with Baltimore homicide detectives. He wrote a book based on his research, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which in turn inspired the television series "Homicide, Life on the Street."

But what about the life of the 8-year-old boy, whom the editors were convinced was a real person? "Somebody's life is always at stake," says Simon, who argues that his comment is not as cold as it may sound. Doing the larger story may provide greater good to society than acting to save one person or solve one crime. Equally important, he says, is keeping promises a reporter may have made to sources. "It's easy to keep your word to honorable people," he says. "It takes a real commitment to give your word and keep it to people who are not."

That means if an agreement is made to keep sources or their activities confidential, that promise must be honored. Breaking the promise could cost the reporter credibility and make completing the journalistic mission of shining light on important topics impossible, in Simon's view.

But even a hard-liner like Simon acknowledges that complications can arise. Simon encountered a dilemma when he and his partner, former homicide detective Edward Burns, spent a year in Baltimore's inner city researching their 1997 book, "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood." While they were there, an addict who went by the street name of Hungry was stabbed to death. Simon and Burns heard the name of the killer from area residents while police tape was still up blocking off the crime scene, Simon says. The authors heard enough about the incident to provide an eyewitness account of it in "The Corner": "Once in and once out. Hungry greets the knife with open arms and a vague expression of surprise."

Simon figured the police would quickly solve the case. When that didn't happen, he faced an ethical question: He had information about who did it, but he had gained that information from sources. "I wrestled with it as an act of conscience... I knew the names of eyewitnesses," Simon says, adding he and Burns had earned the confidence of the neighborhood by repeatedly stressing they were there as reporters, not to be snitches or to be the eyes and ears of the police.

Simon's solution: He called a police detective and gave him the street name of the alleged killer. When the detective asked for additional information, including how Simon knew what he knew and the names of the witnesses, Simon refused to say. Today, nearly 20 years later, Simon still isn't sure he made the right call.

"Maybe I shouldn't have even gone that far, but I felt like I hadn't given any actual evidence," Simon says. "I gave [the detective] a direction in which, if he chose to proceed and work the case with the people in the neighborhood, he could.. but that's as far as I could go. I cannot put in other people and volunteer them. Can't do that." Police eventually arrested the man that Simon fingered, though Simon says he was never convicted.

Providing additional information may have helped the police get a killer off the street more quickly, but it would have damaged the credibility of Burns and Simon in the neighborhood and undercut their mission as reporters. "It was more important that we spend a year in that neighborhood to critique the drug war from the ground up than it was to solve the murder of Hungry — whether or not the guy was going to stab somebody the next week," Simon says. "As long as the drug war goes on, there are always going to be Hungrys, and they're always going to be getting stabbed."

The best way for a reporter to tell the police about a crime or a person being at risk is to print or broadcast the news, Simon says. "You could construct any number of theories on why you should call the cops or why you shouldn't call the cops," he says. "On some level, the primary mission is the primary mission: Get the story."

An admirable goal, but one that is not always possible to achieve. In the Davis case, both the Post-Standard and ESPN spent months investigating the claims before concluding they couldn't nail them down. Even then, both news organizations made efforts to keep in contact with Davis.

Some journalists may not be comfortable turning information over to authorities the way the reporters did in the Chicago area cemetery case. And there isn't always a Solomon-like solution to split the baby, as Simon was able to do when the addict dubbed Hungry was murdered. That's why, says DePauw's Steele, editors must occasionally look outside of the newsroom for advice.

"You could consult a rabbi," Steele says, referring to a person with expertise in the relevant area, such as victim advocacy or suicide prevention. "A wise person who has knowledge and the independence to offer guidance..somebody who is a specialist on the seriousness of the situation and vulnerability of the people involved."

Still, no matter how wise and worldly an editor's adviser may be, there's a good chance the ultimate decision will be controversial, both in the newsroom and in the community.

"If you call three different rabbis," Steele says, "you might get three different answers."