By Nicole Comparato
ORLANDO, Fla. — It takes a cool head, patience, trust, thorough research, organization, set principles and experience to figure out how to ethically handle a major breaking news story.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and a former ombudsman at ESPN, knows there is no black-and-white solution to an ethical problem. She told members of the Association for Women in Sports Media in a May 23 conference session that many factors influence how organizations present stories.
“Ethics is a muscle in your brain that you exercise,” she said.
McBride said there are things working against you when trying to figure out the ethics of a situation, including time pressure, unethical competition, unreliable sources and the race to be first.
She cited several examples of cases where news outlets got it wrong because they wanted to be the first to report breaking news, or outlets were wrong because they took information from another organization that was wrong in the first place.
In sticky situations where you must determine how to write a story while keeping in mind sensitivity and being weary of the facts, sometimes there is no right answer.
Nothing demonstrated that better than the discussion about ESPN’s initial handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State.
Several AWSM members who work at ESPN attended the session and sparked a spirited debate with McBride and others in the room about the priorities of news outlets and the need to cater to their audience.
McBride pointed out that one of the first stories ESPN ran about Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State sexual impropriety situation was an article that explored how recruiting would be affected by the scandal, rather than focusing on the allegations.
This prompted questions about the audience. Were ESPN readers more focused on the actual criminal accusations in the beginning or the effect on Penn State football? And how could ESPN balance it?
It was just one of many ethical case studies McBride presented to engage the audience in a very active session.
McBride said the first thing to do is understand your role when deciphering an ethical situation. Without structure, it is incredibly difficult to respond to situations and decide what the correct move is. This includes making sure there are many people helping out. She said the biggest mistakes occur when just one or two people are making the decision and don’t get other perspectives in on the conversation.
Sports journalism, McBride said, offers many opportunities for writers to show their news judgment. The best tool journalists have is their ability to ask questions, which could prevent an ethical disaster or getting facts wrong in a breaking story.
She added that the most important part of ethical decision making is knowing what you stand for, which will help guide the conversation. At Poynter, those principles are truth, independence, minimizing harm, transparency and community. But even if one organization is different, setting standards in stone is half the battle.
“You have to figure out what your principles are,” McBride said. “It doesn’t matter what principles you pick, but that you actually pick principles.”