For a transcript of Tuesday's ethics discussion click here.
By BRIAN HENDRICKSON
IU National Sports Journalism Center Graduate Fellow
A.J. Daulerio says he found himself in the shadiest situation of his life this summer, but one for which the Deadspin editor-in-chief holds no regrets.
Walking through New York City with an envelope full of cash — “more than I’d ever seen,” Daulerio said — the leader of one of the media’s consistent lightning rods for controversy met in a hotel room with a mysterious person he would only call “Mr. X” because of an anonymity agreement. He paid the person an undisclosed amount to receive materials connecting Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre to former New York Jets game day hostess Jenn Sterger. The materials included voicemails allegedly left on Sterger’s cell phone, which Favre has since confirmed, and a picture of male genitalia allegedly sent from Favre to Sterger.
They were the core materials of a story which Daulerio said quadrupled Deadspin’s traffic in the last month, while at the same time provoking intense debate over how traditional media ethics fit into the emerging digital age. Deadspin’s reporting has raised questions about whether the trigger point for reporting a story has moved and sparked debates over the practices of paying for information and breaking perceived anonymity agreements with sources.
And Daulerio regrets none of it.
Daulerio spoke on a panel hosted by the Indiana University National Sports Journalism Center at the IUPUI Campus Center Tuesday night to debate sports media ethics in the digital age with Washington Post columnist Mike Wise, ESPN Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of ESPN.com Rob King, and WISH-TV reporter Ashley Adamson.
Daulerio said he made the right decision.
“That’s just not how I operate,” Daulerio said when asked if he had any ethical qualms with paying for information, later adding that he had no regrets about revealing Sterger’s identity. “I also knew that any potential backlash that I was going to get from making that decision, the payoff was a lot larger. And it was the right decision at the time to make.”
But that payoff — a whirlwind of national news reports that have invited interview requests from national outlets and placed a bright spotlight on Deadspin’s operations — also sparked the ethical debates. Were his news-gathering techniques a bastardization of ethical codes? Or simply the standard operating procedure for a new form of media that has yet to be specifically defined?
The story sent reporters and editors searching to find the defining line for when a story becomes mainstream news, and how it should be handled.
King and Wise, who work for companies that abide by traditional ethical codes, said their organizations would not have paid for the information. King said Sterger’s resistance to full cooperation would have impacted ESPN’s approach to the story, and affected the pace at which it pursued it.
But King also did not condemn Daulerio’s actions.
“They’re just in a different business, with a different mission serving an audience a different way,” King said. “We certainly think about this, and we certainly ask ourselves questions about what the tipping point might be. But, specifically these incidents, that’s where the differences lie.”
Adamson said WISH-TV almost certainly would not have run the story solely with the information that Deadspin obtained, and Wise said The Post not only would have scowled at the idea of paying for the information, but he would never reveal the source — Sterger — as a means to report the story. Daulerio, on the other hand, said the initial story he wrote in August was intended to “put up a bat signal for whoever else had this information to kind of step forward and talk to us.”
“I think there was a legitimate news story there, don’t let anybody fool you about that,” Wise said. “This is a guy that possibly sexually harassed an employee he worked with. Anybody in America would want that story. The Washington Post, Deadspin, everybody would want that story. But I think in the same thing, I have a problem with the whole idea, you know, (of) outing the source and using Jenn’s e-mails that were obviously personal e-mails and not getting a full OK from her.
“I’m sure A.J.’s got stories and Rob and Ashley have got stories that have never been told because someone wouldn’t go on record with you. Well, we all do. But at some point, wherever I went to school, wherever it was the journalism professor that planted it in my brain, you don’t screw over a source. You just don’t.”
Curiously, Daulerio has refused to give up the source he paid to obtain the indecent picture and voicemails. When NFL Security contacted him earlier this month as part of its investigation into the incident, Daulerio said he agreed to talk but made clear that he would not turn over any materials or make any statements which may jeopardize his source’s anonymity — statements which seemed to invoke shield laws that protect journalists in state courts from revealing sources. They also appear to conflict with Daulerio’s decision to reveal Sterger as a source.
Daulerio admitted those decisions were inconsistent. But he said he had not promised Sterger anonymity, and he believed she was on the record regarding the possibility that a third party in the Jets’ organization was facilitating the contact between Favre and Sterger.
“I think she had all this stuff on her computer for a while for a reason,” Daulerio said. “So this was going to come out in whatever way is going to benefit her career. … And when we finally came to the final flare that I shot up before I was going to go with this, she said, in my mind, she agreed. But I also know she works for Comcast and The Daily Line. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is probably going to be a very, very big story. Why wouldn’t she go to them first?’
“So at that point, I’m making like a last-minute decision to go with her, make myself look like the idiot and just her the shrinking violet in this whole entire situation. But my angle really wasn’t about Jenn Sterger. It was about getting that evidence and looking into the deeper story that was there, which, as we all know, is there.”
Daulerio said the Favre story marked the third time Deadspin had paid for information, but it’s not an information-gathering strategy that he expects to make habitual.
Daulerio said Gawker Media — Deadspin’s parent company — does not have a fund specifically set aside for paying sources. Instead, the money is essentially borrowed from the site’s budget and must be repaid. So some of the factors that go into paying their sources include the potential traffic increase the information may draw and whether it will be enough to compensate the expenditure.
“So my job is to decide whether or not it’s worth it,” Daulerio said. “And in this case I chose right.”
Among other topics discussed during the panel:
- King said ESPN’s criticized decision to not immediately report a civil suit filed against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisburger over an alleged sexual assault stemmed from a policy established nearly two decades earlier, not from any partnership agreements between the NFL and the network that critics felt created a conflict of interest.
Said King: “Anyone can file a civil suit. It does not mean that there’s a result that comes out about it. We went aggressive about a case involving the New York Mets in ’92, we didn’t really like where we were on that, so as many times happens with polices, we created a policy that said civil suits are not the trigger. We need this to go further. And that stood for a pretty good stance for 10 years. … The Roethlisburger case was one in which Vince (Doria, Vice President and Director of News at ESPN), who was one of the architects of this policy, and others really felt as if they’d landed on something that people could understand, in pure and simple terms.”
- Wise said his Twitter controversy — when an attempt to make a point about how many news outlets often report information without verifying it backfired and led to a one-month suspension from The Washington Post — offered an important lesson. Ironically, it came from a Deadspin writer who said Wise did not understand his own level of credibility.
Said Wise: “There’s something to that. As much as newspapers and ESPN and every big news organization wants you to be out there promoting your stories, wants you to be part of the social media set, whereas before you’re supposed to hide behind the byline and be the quiet guy and observe, now you’ve got to promote yourself, go on CNN, do all these interviews, there’s still people who want or expect credibility from certain news organizations. And if I had taken myself as serious as they took me, I wouldn’t have gotten myself in that kind of trouble. And that part of it was a great lesson for me.”
- Wise said the controversy has not changed his concerns that the pressure to be first has trumped the need to be right.
Said Wise: “There’s almost no penalty for being wrong now if you come back. If your crawl line says this guy’s been traded, along CNN or ESPN or anywhere, there’s almost no repercussions about being wrong if you can say how you screwed up within 10 minutes. And that part’s a little alarming to me, too. … On the flip side, I’ve got to learn that blogs, Twitter, all these devices, are in essence moving news, that not all our news is going to be gathered out of the morning newspaper anymore. It just isn’t. It isn’t even going to be gathered on our websites. It’s going to be evolving within seconds.”