NPC/FGCU Second Media Panel Presentation: Ethics Issues

On April 4, the Press Club of Southwest Florida sponsored a second panel presentation at FGCU, this one specifically for Professor Lyn Millner’s two journalism writing classes. Organized by Connie Kindsvater, NPC scholarship chairman, the panel consisted of:

  • Moderator Soni Dimond, VP Corporate Communications, Beasley Media Group
  • Brett Blackledge, Investigations/Enterprise Editor, Naples Daily News
  • Chris Cifatte, Evening News Anchor, WINK-TV
  • Cammi Clark, Associate Publisher and Executive Editor, èBella Magazine
  • Gina Edwards, investigative reporter, founder and journalist, Watchdog City

Dimond and Edwards are also NPC members.

Blackledge began the ethics discussion with a story he covered when on assignment in Delaware, when a $76 room service breakfast tab caught his attention as a little “red flag” on an elected official’s travel expense report. Bottom line, the minority official felt that he was being targeted. Blackledge was asking questions because he was wondering if state money was used to socialize. The students were asked their opinions about the matter. “Was the amount too small to pursue? Were taxpayer resources being used? Was this a moral issue? Was it a political issue? Does it matter? If he overspent on this, has he overspent on other things?” Several students identified that the primary issue was a possible misuse of taxpayer dollars. Blackledge revealed that his investigation confirmed the elected official and a single female deputy, also on the same business trip, had been charging their personal expenses to the state credit card, including football games, limo service and rental cars.

Cifatte talked about the Teresa Sievers murder case, which is a current, ongoing investigation. His ethics point centered on a journalist covering the story versus law enforcement asking the news media to “back off” until they had arrested the suspect. Cifatte said that one of the WINK-TV reporters happened to be in the courthouse and accidentally discovered that one of the husband’s best friends was agreeing to a plea bargain to give evidence against Mark Sievers (Teresa’s husband). Cifatte and his crew rushed to the scene (the Sievers’s home), waiting for the arrest of Mark Sievers. Law enforcement asked them to allow 10 minutes because they didn’t know if the two children were in the house with the suspect, or not. Cifatte asked the FGCU journalism students, “What would you do? You work for the public; what about the public’s right to know? What about your ongoing relationship with the Lee County Sheriff? And, the important question, “Will it do harm?”

The students discussed several aspects of the situation. One student asked, “Why did this one matter?” Fellow panel presenter Edwards responded, “In this area, homicide is not frequent.” Clark added, “(Teresa) Sievers was prominent, and she was brutally murdered. I spent a lot of time with her before she was on the May 2015 cover of èBella, shortly before she was murdered.”

Edwards added, “It always is a question of why you are doing this. As a reporter, you need to answer that.”

Cifatte told the students that they waited, as requested. Why? Because it was the right thing to do in this situation. “But, it isn’t always easy to figure out what is the right thing to do,” he said. “We did follow the police, we stayed on the story, but we waited until the suspect was arrested and was brought out of the house. Turns out the two children were not in the house at the time, but that was an unknown.”

Moderator Dimond added, “This is reality, real people, you have to be careful.”

Clark brought up a story that she covered when she was an investigative reporter in New York. A local school superintendent, on his own time, was arrested for a DUI and his 12-year-old son was in the car too. She asked, “Do we publish that story? The wife/mother pleaded with us not to run the story.” The students brought up several viewpoints on that case: A 12-year-old was in the car. “Was it a lesser offense or a greater offense? Will your story hurt the kid? If you run it, you need to minimize it so that it has less effect on the kid.” Blackledge said, “You can kill someone when driving impaired.” “What if you didn’t report it, and it happened again,” Edwards asked. “If I rob a bank the second time, is that worse than the first time,” Ciffatte asked. Clark told the students that they printed the story. The superintendent ended up in rehab and his wife called and thanked them for running it because it helped him and their family.

Edwards talked about a whistle-blower case. When a former stockbroker handed her a bag with 500 customers’ names on cards, could she contact any of these people to verify his story? Technically, the cards were the property of the brokerage, but they were freely given to her; she didn’t ask for the information. In this “gray area,” she contacted the newspaper’s attorney. Voicemails are a privacy issue, even if an employee gives you his voicemail password so that you can listen to the messages. “What about trash bins?” Blackledge added, if they are on private property, we cannot search them. Cifatte added, but easements are public property — if they are on an easement, then we can search them. “Information needs to be collaborated,” Edwards said. (Note: That story was made into a movie, Boiler Room, which is now on NetFlix.)

“As journalists, we have to hold ourselves to the same high standards,” Edwards said. “When you’re asking tough questions, scrutinizing public officials, you need to keep your own life above scrutiny.” Her question to the students was, “Does where you are make a difference as to what you cover and what you don’t?” Her former Naples Daily News editor said, “No” to a story about a Naples nudist colony. Why? “Because the NDN is a family newspaper.”

As a wrap-up, the panel presented several thoughts to the students, regarding ethics: Keep yourself independent. Keep yourself politically neutral. Keep free from conflicts of interest. Don’t accept gifts, bribes or favors. Make certain that you don’t personally benefit from the information that you uncover. When writing about an allegation or accusation, always give the person the opportunity to respond. Don’t publish anonymous sources. Don’t let the source see the story before you publish it; you can double-check a quote, but don’t give them approval over what you publish. Your most important commodity is your credibility.

Kindsvater promised a third panel presentation for the FGCU journalism students in the fall.

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