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Can “painfully full disclosure” help save the business?

For those of us who still believe in the oxymoronic concept of journalism ethics, it’s tough to know how to feel about Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio’s explanation of his actions in revealing nude photos allegedly texted by pro football star Brett Favre to a woman who is not his wife.

Daulerio first published the story before it was clear that his source, model and TV personality Jenn Sterger, wanted to go on the record. Later, he paid an unidentified third party a significant sum for copies of voice mails and pictures allegedly sent by Favre to Sterger; that person’s identity Daulerio is protecting.

How does he explain skirting and violating so many traditional journalism rules, from paying for a story to publicly outing a source before that person clearly agreed to go on the record?

“I…knew that any potential backlash that I was going to get from making that decision, the payoff was a lot larger,” Daulerio said at a forum convened by the National Sports Journalism Center last week, as quoted in a story by center graduate fellow Brian Hendrickson.

It would seem the Deadspin editor provided his own answer to the event’s title: Where is the Line? In this case, there may not be any, beyond the notion of doing whatever it takes to land a story that will bring big readership.

Which reminded me of a conversation I had with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. He’s been writing for a while about the inability of old school journalism codes to keep up with a modern media structure that turns everyone into a media outlet and provides a thousand ways to skirt old ethical rules.

Rosen derides the old approach as “view-from-nowhere” journalism that asks consumers to believe the unbelievable: That journalists don’t have views, values and conflicts which shape the way they approach stories or even what they define as news.

He says there are two ways news outlets can establish trust with an audience: by saying they have no conflicts of interest or political views, or by admitting every conflict they have and allowing the reader or viewer to decide how that affects a story’s credibility.

When Rosen and I talked, we were discussing MSNBC’s struggle with star Keith Olbermann, suspended for making donations to political candidates without getting approval from his bosses.

“Why don’t they just develop a set of disclosure requirements for their on-air people who are coming from somewhere?” said Rosen, who envisions a web page easily accessible and prominently featured, which shows in detail every anchor’s political donations, group affiliations, values, views and anything else which might affect how they approach a story.

Later, that made me think of the Favre story and Deadspin. Because in a media world with an increasingly voracious demand for sports gossip, it seems impossible to expect outlets to play by old-school journalism codes.

It seems time for a new set of rules. And Rosen’s idea of painfully full disclosure feels like a good start.

In the Favre case, Daulerio already went halfway there, admitting the circumstances of his conversations with Sterger and the fact that he published the story before she had fully agreed to come forward.

But there’s still a lot we don’t know. Who provided the material? How much did Deadspin pay? How did they know the pictures weren’t forgeries or fakes?

Full disclosure puts to rest the biggest fear; that important context is missing allowing readers to judge the story for themselves.

For now, it seems Daulerio’s gamble has paid off. Favre has reportedly admitted leaving voice mails for Sterger, the NFL is investigating the incident and no one is talking about suing Deadspin. Yet.

But in an environment where readers expect to know everything anyway, perhaps it's time for journalists to peel back the curtain and let the audience know everything.

The trust we save just might rescue us all.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.  
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