The Digital Journalist
Bad News
February 2007

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Haunting. That is the only way to describe the suicide of a person who is the target of unexpected and harmful attention – actual or anticipated – from the news media.

A responsible journalist has an obligation to inform the public of the truth. Regrettably, the decision to tell the whole truth in a news story can sometimes lead to serious harm to a person who is the subject of the report.

Two recent stories bring this problem to mind. After laying out the relevant details of these stories, we will offer a strategy that journalists can use to address the problem of harm when deciding which stories deserve coverage.

For several days last fall, Pittsburgh station KDKA-TV aired promos for an upcoming story about a "month-long investigation into reports of public and illegal sexual behavior" by an area Presbyterian minister. Before the story was broadcast, the subject of the story, Reverend Brent Dugan of Ben Avon, Penn., committed suicide.

Dugans's death came a day after the station canceled plans to air the report, citing concerns that the pastor was a suicide risk.

The story never aired, so the station's allegations against the pastor are unclear. The promos did not identify him by name, but showed a reporter confronting Rev. Dugan about alleged visits to an adult bookstore.

The minister wrote a final letter to his congregation before he killed himself. He apologized for his conduct, explained that he "had struggled with his sexuality all of his adult life" and revealed that he had been engaged sexually with a man for four years. The man cooperated with KDKA in setting up the bookstore meeting where evidence of his sexual liaison with the minister was recorded by the TV station.

The second story also occurred last fall, in Terrell, Texas. A North Texas prosecutor, Louis Conradt, killed himself as police closed in to arrest him on charges of soliciting sex over the Internet from someone he thought was a 13-year-old boy.

An NBC Dateline camera crew had accompanied police to Conradt's home to record his arrest. The arrest was the culmination of a sting operation, mounted by Dateline in cooperation with a self-professed Internet "vigilance committee," Perverted Justice.

The Texas sting employed Dateline's standard methods when doing these stories: a Perverted Justice volunteer, posing as a child, decoyed Conradt into an Internet chat session that was sexual in nature. Once a sufficiently incriminating electronic record was created, police officers, working with the Dateline team, swooped down on Conradt's home to arrest him and seize further evidence.

Clearly, the subjects in these stories each made his own choice to end his life. But each story also contains a set of circumstances that raise questions of journalistic culpability.

The Pittsburgh story revolves around privacy. On its face, it appears to have involved a plan to out a gay minister. The intent of the minister's lover in the story set-up can only be imagined. Further, the fact that the station planned to air the story during sweeps month is troublesome.

The Texas story involves other journalistic values, including creating news and checkbook journalism. Dateline has repeatedly set up these pedophile stings, renting houses as sting sites and paying the Perverted Justice people for help. NBC plans to air footage from its Texas sting operation in February, another sweeps month, according to the Perverted Justice website. We do not know if the network plans to mention the suicide.

As we've stated previously in this column, we believe that pedophile stings may have been initially justified in bringing public attention to the problem of sexual predation over the Internet. And subsequent stings may have been justified in alerting the public if the criminal justice system had failed to do anything about the problem.

But the practice of continually setting up and covering busts for the sake of ratings smells like entertainment and should be billed as such.

Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins, in their book "Media Ethics: Issues and Cases," offer a way of thinking about news stories that we think might help journalists make better decisions about stories that have the potential to cause harm.

They distinguish between three concepts: the public's right to know, the public's need to know and the public's want to know.

The concept of the public's right to know is associated with legal concepts including open meeting laws and public records.

The public's need to know involves information necessary in managing daily living. Patterson and Wilkins cite "…the health of financial institutions and the character of those who run them…" as one example. Citizens may not have the time or skills to dig out the information. The journalist's task is to provide the details so the audience can make sound economic or political decisions.

Finally, the public's want to know centers around information that some members of the audience may find interesting but have neither a right nor a need to know.

The authors talk about these concepts in relation to privacy, but we believe they can be applied to other situations as well.

The professional journalist weighs and balances the potential harm to the story subject when deciding whether to cover a story. Sometimes the duty to report the complete facts outweighs the potential for harm; if so, the story should be reported in full. At other times the potential for harm tips the scale in the opposite direction and the story need not, or even should not, be told. Or, it might be told in another way that minimizes harm.

Full disclosure is more likely to be morally justifiable, despite potential or actual harm to the subject, if the story is one that the public has a right or need to know. For a story that the public only wants to know, there is less moral support for disclosure and a stronger case to be made for restraint.

We caution journalists not to confuse money-making with the moral principles of avoiding harm or truth-telling. Making money is certainly a consideration in the journalist's professional life but it counts as an economic principle in the cases mentioned above and should not be used as moral justification for going public with a story that may cause harm.

We also urge journalists to carefully consider these issues when deciding whether and how to report a story.

Harm to a fellow human being is always a serious moral matter.

So, too, is harm to the reputation of the journalist and, by association, the reputations of others in the profession, when individuals are injured for the sake of ratings and in the absence of a compelling public interest in knowing the story in all its lurid details.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.