In 1981, I was a young broadcaster at KXMD-TV in Williston, N.D. Although the station had hired me to be their sports director, it became clear early on that I would wear many hats, due to the small staff and limited resources. That included shooting video and doubling as a news reporter from time to time.
One afternoon, our News Director Dennis Newman and I were called out to cover a breaking story involving a Williston police officer engaged in a shootout with a suspicious armed man at a used car lot. The suspect died at the scene, and we needed to get the facts from Police Chief Ray Atol. As we settled in for a private interview with the chief, I can still recall his first words. “Just between you and me and the fence post, this guy had a record as long as my arm,” Atol told us. While I was just the photographer on this story, I wondered how Dennis might deal with that comment.
On the one hand, this was a significant bit of information that our audience deserved to know. Yet, wasn’t the now late chief making it clear he didn’t want this out there for public consumption? Use the quote on the air and KXMD might have an edge on the competition. But it also would almost certainly dry up a source we needed on a regular basis.
I thought about that day, as I read the news regarding the recent resignation of Norwood Teague as the University of Minnesota’s athletic director. Teague stepped down in early August after it was revealed he sent inappropriate text messages to female colleagues. Just a few days later, Minneapolis Star Tribune sports reporter Amelia Rayno wrote a first-person account of a similar encounter with Teague that included groping and numerous texts of a sexual nature.
Since then, many have praised Rayno for having the courage to come forward with this information. It has also led the university to pursue a further investigation into Teague’s behavior, to determine if this happened with greater frequency or possibly created a culture of sexual harassment toward women.
But Rayno has her critics, too. She’s been blasted by some for waiting too long to reveal the details of Teague’s behavior, even admitting in her story that she “feels bad” she didn’t take a more proactive stance when the texts began a couple of years ago.
What makes this such a slippery slope for journalists, is that almost always in these cases, there are consequences greatly affecting the participants, that are both good and bad.
As a young, relatively inexperienced female reporter covering Big Ten sports in a male-dominated field, Rayno’s job success at least partly depended on a good relationship with the school’s athletic director. Shun his advances and she might not get all the inside scoops on the Gophers’ basketball team.
Yet once the texts began to lack professionalism, doesn’t Rayno have an obligation as a journalist to stop this potential predator? Put yourself in her shoes and consider the possible consequences of blowing the whistle on one of the most powerful sports figures in Minnesota. Either way, it wouldn’t be easy.
I remember watching an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes” fame. Wallace prided himself on aggressive reporting and told of an incident where he had landed a one-on-one with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Iranian officials had granted the rare interview, but with the stipulation that Wallace only ask questions they had prepared beforehand. Wallace not only disregarded the rules … he guaranteed he would air Khomeini’s angry responses to those questions he wasn’t expecting. Gutsy, yes, but Wallace added that he and his crew bid a hasty retreat out of Iran immediately after the interview.
As a sports reporter in Williston, Bismarck and Fargo, I never felt my life might be in danger like Mike Wallace’s. But I did encounter some tough ethical calls from time to time. A golf course once offered me a free pass to play at their links anytime, provided I did weekly updates on their men’s and women’s leagues. A station owner wondered if I would do a feature piece on his girlfriend’s softball team. And a college football team loved my presence when that team was winning games but not so much when I needed to investigate allegations of steroid use by a few of its players.
How close one gets to a source is ultimately up to the individual and the set of circumstances involved. A reporter has an always challenging responsibility to answer to: the source, the employer, the viewer, listener or reader. But maybe most importantly, to oneself.
As I recall, Newman chose not to use that juicy quote from the chief back in Williston. I know it proved advantageous in the months to come. But years later, when I’ve told that story to my journalism students at Sanford-Brown College, I often wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to stop Atol right in his tracks. Telling a reporter something you DON’T want them to report can prove mighty tempting to ignore … regardless of the consequences.