The Ethics of Covering Sleaze
By Al Diamon
Undercover lovers: One evening, a couple of decades ago, I was walking home through Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, when I turned the corner onto Mellen Street and encountered what can only be described as the stereotypical prostitute.
Black wig. Stiletto heels. Fishnet stockings. High hemline. Low neckline. Blood-red lipstick and a pound of other makeup.
She gave me a big smile as I walked by, leaving me with a three-letter word foremost on my mind.
No, not sex.
As I suspected, the Portland police were running one of their periodic sting operations. The next day, the department announced it had busted over a dozen men for soliciting its decoy. As was routine at the time, the names, ages and addresses of those arrested showed up shortly thereafter in the Portland Press Herald. Among them was that of a retired journalist from the paper.
There was no ethical agonizing at the Press Herald over the decision to print his name. No consultations with lawyers. No calls for advice from the Poynter Institute’s experts. No stories attempting to justify the embarrassment it caused him or any other of the alleged johns. As an editor at the paper told me when I asked about the unwanted exposure his former colleague had received, “Everybody gets the same treatment. Everybody.”
As a result of the publicizing of that law enforcement operation, for the next couple of weeks, the streets of Parkside were notably less clogged with jerks in cars harassing every woman they saw. The neighborhood’s real prostitutes, scruffy women who usually wore jeans and t-shirts, suffered a dramatic drop in their income.
There was no question that publication of the arrests had an impact on the community.
Different time? Different standards? Different ethics?
Perhaps, but it’s still difficult to understand why so many of Maine’s news outlets agonized throughout October over how to cover the release of the names of the men accused of being clients of a Kennebunk Zumba studio that allegedly fronted for a sex-for-money operation.
Two people have been indicted for financing and running the business. As many as 200 others are being charged with misdemeanor counts of being customers. Among that group are said to be prominent persons, including politicians, business leaders and a TV personality (at the time of this writing, only the first 21 names have been made public).
The Press Herald alone ran through several scenarios for its coverage. According to accounts published in the paper at various times, its editors initially said they’d probably name any public figures who were charged, but ignore those who weren’t widely known. Then, they said they’d likely print the names of elected officials and others in the public eye, but confine the rest of the johns to an online police-blotter listing. When the names were released without middle initials, ages or addresses, the paper decided not to name anybody. But a day later, when full information became available, it blew the cover of all of them.
The Journal Tribune in Biddeford put the names on its website when they were first released, then took them down a few hours later. The Bangor Daily News “decided not to publish the names because of a lack of identifying information,” but provided a link to the full list as soon as more details were released.
WCSH-TV and WGME-TV in Portland had the names online within minutes. WMTW-TV decided not to use them at all. The York County Coast Star ran everything. The Kennebunk Post first published the names without ages or addresses, then added that information. The Lewiston Sun Journal relied on the Associated Press for its coverage, which meant no identifying details at all.
Meanwhile, all the information was readily available on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and even on the websites of news organizations that hadn’t published them, where they showed up in the comments section (forcing the Press Herald to briefly suspend such postings). Regardless of what the official media decided to do, the real-world flow of information was unimpeded. The names were available to anyone who wanted them.
Just like in the old days.
Both before and after the release of this information, ethics experts were quoted extensively saying that the media shouldn’t serve as a “stenographer” for police by regurgitating whatever material they were given.
No question about that. Although, it’s also beside the point. Which is:
Journalists aren’t in the business of keeping things the public wants or needs to know secret. Particularly stuff that everybody was going to find out, anyway. Pretending that withholding information makes some kind of moral difference is an attitude that’s been obsolete since the advent of e-mail.
While there are legitimate reasons for refraining from identifying victims of sex crimes and minors charged with some offenses, those exceptions should be carefully considered on a case by case basis to make sure they’re actually protecting the innocent. But in this matter, the men involved, while technically not yet guilty of breaking the law, aren’t mere bystanders. They got mixed up in this through their own actions, even though they had to know what they were doing was illegal and would reflect poorly on them if it became public. They knew the risks. They bear the responsibility.
What reporters and editors need to do in covering them is not to suppress information, but to provide the context the cyber-rumor mill never does. How serious is this crime? (In this case, not very.) Should what they did even be a crime? (Well worth debating.) Does visiting a prostitute make a person unfit to hold his job or other position in the community? (Depends on the job or position, but mostly not.) Is the only reason this story got the kind of coverage it did – far more extensive than, say, the state’s budget problems or the U.S. Senate candidates’ stands on free trade – because it involves sex? (Yep.)
There have been a few feeble attempts at examining these issues in the mainstream media, but a lot less of it than I’d like to see. Its absence is a lot more troubling than whether the names of a handful of horn dogs make it into the news.
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Kennebunk Post.)
Sun sets on Saturday: The Portland Daily Sun is dropping its Saturday edition, which means the free paper will appear only four days a week. Publisher Mark Guerringue said in an e-mail that the Friday edition will be expanded to accommodate many Saturday features (including the Vex magazine entertainment listings and features). The Friday paper will also be printed in full color on every page.
Guerringue called the decision to print in color “a nod to advertisers.” He described the shift to publishing one less day a week as a “tweak,” saying it “recognizes that while our readership has built to a steady 10,700 midweek and 13,800 for the weekend paper, advertising isn’t where it needs to be.
“We’ve got great penetration with the weekday commuting and in-town crowd so four days allows us to be more consistent editorially. Saturday was always awkward and trying to give it an alternative spin with the likes of Crash Barry didn’t work out.”
Reporter returns to roots: For the third time this year, the Reporter, a weekly newspaper based in Waldoboro, has a different publisher. Current Publishing in Westbrook announced last week that it was turning the publication over to Kerry DeAngelis, who was one of the founders of the Reporter back in 2004.
The paper has struggled under Current, which bought it in 2005. Earlier this year, the company turned operations of all three of its York County weeklies (including the Sun Chronicle in Biddeford-Saco and the Observer in Sanford) over to David Flood, a former newspaper publisher, but that arrangement quickly disintegrated.
DeAngelis owns a marketing company and publishes a tourism guide and the Waldoboro town report.
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in some Current papers.)
Back from the dark side: Bob Mentzinger, once the city editor of the Kennebec Journal and more recently the spokesperson for Democrat Cynthia Dill’s U.S. Senate campaign, is the new managing editor of the Times Record in Brunswick. He fills the spot left vacant when Robert Long moved on to become the Bangor Daily News’ political analyst.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.