AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 2003

He Covers Sports, But Who Will Cover Him?   

One reporter surprised to find his career a roadblock to getting insurance

By Don Walker
Don Walker is senior editor/enterprise and special projects for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.     


That's a strong word. It's unambiguous and sends a message. Now follow that up with "occupation." Unacceptable occupation. It's almost chilling, no?

What exactly would one of those even be? Colombian drug lord? Corporate embezzler? Cincinnati Bengals fan? Try editor. And reporter.

In the eyes of some insurance companies, being a journalist is flat-out unacceptable.

I found that out recently when I received the insurance equivalent of a "Dear John" letter. Allied Insurance, the company that was only too happy to take me into its corporate arms for auto and home coverage late in December, was apparently having second thoughts. "Your insurance will cease," the letter said. The reason? "Unacceptable Occupation: Editor."

Never mind the fact that I'm not even an editor anymore. I was for many years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I've spent most of my journalism career. But I returned to writing a few years ago and cover sports business.

When I first read the letter, I thought it was a joke, a misprint. You cancel an insurance policy if someone's been nailed for drunken driving a few times, or if a disturbing number of people seem to slip on their continuously icy sidewalk. Or if they don't pay their bill. You don't cancel someone just because they're armed with a Bic and a keyboard. And I use a phone, not an AK-47.

Yeah, yeah, some might say that we DO work in an unacceptable occupation. Just ask the people we cover for a living. Ask our husbands and wives...the kids. Look in your paycheck. But seriously....

When I called Allied for an explanation, a beleaguered customer service specialist simply said I was a risk. Journalists tend to get sued, he explained, and that's a risk to the company.

I tried to explain that the Journal Sentinel, like other newspapers, would cover me if I got sued for libel and whatnot. Plus, I've never been sued. I haven't filed an insurance claim--home or auto--in years. No dice.

Incredulous, I posted a message on Jim Romenesko's Weblog. Help me, people. Has anyone else had this problem?

"Don Walker's insurance problem is by no means strange," wrote Scott Collins, Los Angeles TV editor for the Hollywood Reporter. "I encountered similar difficulties when trying to get a homeowners' policy last fall. The broker explained--lamely, I thought--that a number of insurers reject journalists outright, no questions asked, because they believe journalists attract a disproportionate amount of litigation (e.g., defamation suits)."

Amy Alkon, who writes the syndicated "Ask the Advice Goddess," told me that she, too, was turned down for homeowner's insurance. She was rejected because she was a writer and the insurer might have to pick up the cost of a libel suit. Eventually, she found coverage.

Certainly, underwriters should have rules for what they call high-profile occupations. Politicians and athletes can get sued, for example. But sports-business reporters? Copy editors? The folks in features?

Eric Englund, president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance, a lobbying and trade organization, says he hasn't heard of any journalists being singled out for their job. "Clearly there are occupations and professions that make insurance companies nervous," he says. "You must be one of them."

Englund checked with three or four of the top insurance firms in the state to see if they had issues with insuring journalists, and not one of them did, he says.

So I talked to Rick Phillips, an Allied Insurance spokesman. Phillips says a decision to cancel insurance because of an unacceptable occupation "can be an underwriter judgment." "There is variation within the industry," he says.

Phillips explains that canceled coverage can occur with people in high-profile occupations eligible for umbrella coverage, which supplements normal liability coverage.

"In an umbrella policy, you may be more likely to be sued...simply because you are well known," he says.

Feeling like a pariah, and wary of switching carriers again, I agreed to pay more money for the so-called umbrella coverage. I'm covered for now, I think.

But I haven't given up the fight. I filed a complaint with Wisconsin's Commissioner of Insurance. And I've contacted several professional organizations, both in-state and around the nation, hoping to bring attention to what appears to be a discriminatory practice.

In the meantime, reporters and editors, watch your back.