Friday, July 13, 2007

Ethics .... what would you have done?

Within the last month, I was put in quite an ethical dilemma. Certainly ethics come in to play just about every day, but on a scale of 1-10, this was a 15 for me. I'm wondering what some of you would have done. Unfortunately, I'll have to be a bit cryptic here, but I'll try to paint the picture for you.

I got a tip from a reliable source that a Northeast Ohio police department was assigning its officers to make routine stops at a private business. When I say "routine" I mean officers were required to go by there several times a shift, 24/7. The source told me that the required checks were keeping the officers from being able to cover their own beats the way they should and amounted to free security for the business itself. "If a private business wants extra security," the source told me, "why don't they hire their own rent-a-cops like everyone else."

I checked some basic patrol information and found no mention of these patrol checks anywhere. If it was mandatory that the officers spend time at that company then I suspected it was being forced under the radar. My first thought was that someone with political influence might be helping out a business friend who couldn't afford the added $$ for security. I really never entertained any thoughts that the business might be corrupt or that the officers were being used to protect the bad guys (think Al Capone) because there were just too many officers being used in the coverage.

I eventually started asking some police sources about it and found out that plenty of folks knew about the patrols and even acknowledged taking part in them, but no one would tell me why.

Finally, my phone rang from a high-ranking public official who said we needed to talk off-the-record immediately. OTR is not a place I usually like to go, but considering I had no idea at the time why he was even calling I agreed.

He asked me -- make that begged me -- to stop pursuing the story about the added patrols. I asked him how he'd heard about my inquiry at his level, and he said, "you're name is floating in every backroom in government right now and you have people terrified." I sat there for a second and wondered what the heck I'd stumbled on to this time.

"OK," I said, "but you've got to give me at least one good reason here because these are employees on tax payer $$ who are being used like private security guards around the clock."

He paused for a moment and added, "what's your military security clearance?"


"Then you should know that that business is one of the top Ohio targets for Al Qaida or other terrorists and no I'm not kidding."

I sat there to compose my thoughts. Shouldn't the public be made aware of this target? Shouldn't people have a right to know what's in their backyard? Shouldn't the federal government be involved here? Wouldn't Bob Woodward jump on this with both feet and never stop typing until it brought down the President?

"If it's this much of a target," I asked, "why don't they have their own super security or something?"

"Because the federal government doesn't have the dollars to protect it, so it's up to us," he told me. "I really need your help here Eric."

I did some additional research and checked the company by a secondary name which validated what he told me about the business and what goes on inside those walls.

I discussed the information with one confidant at the station and decided to walk away from exposing it on TV News. Ethically I couldn't bring myself to illuminate a target to bad guys watching at home and on the Internet. There's just too much at stake, especially when so many good people are involved in protecting the place. I guess it would have been a bigger story if the target existed and NE Ohio law enforcement knew about the threat and wasn't providing security.

I'm hanging on to my research in case something happens there in the future, but I'm not pursuing it as an on-air story. It's hard to put time into a story that you know viewers would be glued to watching and would generate a ton of conversation and follow-up stories. Still, in my heart, I know I've made the right call here.

Other reporters may have chosen a different path. I remember a competitor telling me once, "what you call 'ethics' Mansfield, I call 'exclusive.'" "You're right," I told her. "And I that's how I live with myself."


Anonymous said...

I agree with your decision. Sometimes those of us in media need to look at the common good... will reporting this help our viewers or hurt in the long run... my guess is that the law enforcement officials see more help in following this for a while longer than concluding it now (and that's what would happen if reported.) I'd carefully monitor the situation and jump on it when the law moves on it. And they better not burn you by lying to you now,,,,

laurac19 said...

Good for you... again, your personal ethics is what sets you apart from the rest of the pack in reporting! It's more important to protect the good guys than to expose a story for the ratings. I think you've got the majority on your side here, Eric!


MediaSkeptic said...

Good decision. Quite honestly Eric, I think you are one of the very few who would have decided as you did, and I applaud you.

I have a newly restored faith in the media. I know it won't last long, because some knucklehead media whore will break the next "big story," and ruin it.

Now, about the ethics of your law enforcement friend......

WAKR News said...

Good decision but just why can't the company involved also provide security if indeed it is a "high impact" target? What's their internal security?

I'm not second-guessing the decision because every reporter or editor needs to weigh the veracity of their source, regardless of how "high ranking" but I'm also skeptical enough over the past five years to question the "national security" claim...

Vincent Duffy said...

Good decision Eric.

I'd also like to add (for those who don't work in our business) that folks in the newsroom are making these kinds of decisions more often than you would guess.

Our audience and media critics are always very quick to point out when the news media acts unethically (and they should), but few seem to realize how often we struggle with these issues because when we do decide correctly most of the audience doesn't know.

Keep up the good work Eric, I'm a big fan of the blog.

Vincent Duffy
News Director
Michigan Radio

Kelly (Powers) Frankina said...

Way to go Eric!!! I agree with your decision. I've known you a long time and one thing has always been true, even when we were kids, you knew right from wrong and you stuck by your decisions even when others would question the decisions. Keep up the great work! Makes me proud to be able to say I know you.

Anonymous said...

good job, you did pursue the story and verified the facts as best you could. the decision was dead on. although local areas may be less protected, the thought of a terror attack on a local site would be much worse to the community. the police force should be seeking funds from homeland to add extra officers to protect this high risk target. honesty and ethics is what this country is looking for and you have done well in your decision

Pho said...

I don't entirely agree. There are a lot of questions unanswered about what this company is and whether everything possible is being done to keep us safe. More thoughts here

Jeff Hess said...

Shalom Eric,

Two points in the story get my Lemmings Meter running:

First, security clearances aren't generic, they're always need-to-know. (I held a secret clearance in the Navy with a nuclear weapons specification for the system I worked on, but that didn't get me access to non-system information.)

Why in the world would any official ask that question and then take your word without documentation that you had such a clearance?

Second, even random patrols by local police as a deterrent to criminals are questionable as an effective measure. Why should anyone assume that all criminals are as stupid as the Watergate burglars?

If this is truly a target, then even hourly patrols wouldn't make a difference. Casual surveillance would quickly determine how often the black and whites roll by and allow the criminals to plan accordingly.

Given the amount of Department of Homeland Insecurity money that has not been spent, the inefficient budget excuse just doesn't work.

There may be a deeper story here, but given the information provided here, I think your first instinct was most likely correct.

Whether this is a corruption story or an inept government story, I'd say go with it.