Where USF faculty, students and graduates are invited to talk about journalism and its problems and opportunities. This blog is not affiliated with the University of San Francisco, nor is the university responsible for any of the opinions expressed herein -- though it is certainly responsible for the people who entertain those opinions, having educated them. They make us proud.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Case of the Purloined Parking Permits

About ten years ago a student in my advanced reporting class was faced with this situation: Since parking is tight on our campus, daily parking passes are at a premium. At the time, our office of Public Safety apparently had a box of passes -- signed by a public safety officer but otherwise blank and therefore "negotiable" -- to which student employees had access. My student observed a classmate, who was also a casual acquaintance, selling and sometimes giving away these blank passes to which he, a student employee in Public Safety, had helped himself. The student reporter wanted to turn this into a story for the Foghorn but was not sure how to proceed because even though this activity was taking place in front of him in another class -- there was nothing clandestine about it -- the student selling, and sometimes giving away, the passes knew and trusted my student and apparently did not think of him as a student journalist. To test the waters, my student bought one of the passes for a dollar.

The questions at the time were: Should he go forward with the story? If so, how? If not, why not?


sonresia said...

obviously this would be a great story, but he'd need the cooperation of the parking pass thief, who i doubt would cooperate, even if the student would change the thief's name. there aren't very many public safety student employees and even with the name change the thief/student could get fired which he/she rightly deserved.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Theresia makes a good point. How can this story be written without taking the culprit down? How can such an act be justified?

jackson said...

this seems like a very serious offense. i dont think there is a way to write the story without consent, as theresia said, and personnally i could not get a friend in trouble like this. i would probably not discuss it unless the person got caught. actually, i probably never would have broght it as a story in the first place. perhaps i need to exam my ethics

Diane Faith said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diane Faith said...

In order to write the story, I feel the right thing to do would be to get the consent of the thief. It is only fair since he had no idea that he was discussing his actions with a student reporter. Putting myself in the position of a student reporter, if the thief did not give me his consent, I wouldn't be able to make a story out of this because of the mere fact he didn't know what my status was when telling me the info.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

So what is the primary ethical value here? Loyalty to a friend no matter what the friend has done? (In that case, are we really talking about an ethic that is personal, not journalistic?) Or is the guiding principle a matter of things overheard in a public place never being written about or attributed to the person who said them without the person's permission?

jessica said...

i agree with theresia, jackson, and dinae that i wouldn't want to go for the story without the consent of the parking pass thief. if i were in the thief's shoes i know that i wouldn't want the whole school to know what i have done. i think that there are lots of journalists who are put into situations where they have to reevaluate their ethics in terms of personal and journalistic. i think that i would try everything in my power to stay loyal to a friend, unless they gave me their permission to write the story. i would never want to be placed in a situation like that but i would just listen to my gut feeling since i'm a true believer in karma. even if i didn't write it, maybe there would be some other journlist(s) who would go for the story.

Dave Rinehart said...

This would make a pretty boring story, unless the story itself took on some meta-journalism aspect and was ABOUT the ethical decision here. Since this so-called "thief" was not being clandestine in the least, he probably didn't think he was in the wrong. Thus, why would he refuse having the story published about him - especially if he was kept perfectly anonymous? He obviously did not care about getting caught or getting reported.

Basically, I would not forgo writing this story strictly for reasons of ethics. I would forgo writing it because it would not, as Theresia said, make a great story.

Dave Rinehart said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
William said...

This seems like a typical investigative reporting case which deals with injustice. It would make for a great story yet it will be tough to prove with evidence that this theif had stolen, sold, and even given away parking passes. Apart from the "friend" issue I feel that this should be made public. Passes were stolen and are now being turned into personal financial gain. Hope everyone had a good weekend.

Katherine said...

I agree that this would be an interesting story but going to print without the consent of the thief would be an issue. If you publish you must realize that someone will get into trouble on the other hand the story is interesting, so it comes down to how badly do you want thte story out there and at what cost. Personally i think that without consent i would not continue with it.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Let's assume it's a story in that parking on campus is tight and that these permits do usually sell for six bucks and are limited in number. It's equivalent to stealing candy bars out of a vending machine and either giving them away or selling them for a nickel, is it not? But we don't need to debate that because I, functioning as de facto editor, told the student I thought it was a story and instructed him to pursue it. Therefore, if he does not wish to pursue the story, he has to present to me an ethical argument against moving forward. Some of you are suggesting that 1) you need a source's permission to do a story about that source's lawbreaking even if the source breaks the law in front of you, and/or 2) as a journalist, you must never betray a friend by writing about that friend, even if you discover that the friend has done something wrong that, if the person weren't your friend, would be newsworthy. Is that a fair summary? Do you want to tweak it to make exceptions or do you want to make it a general rule?

juan romero said...

I think its a dificult situation in the friendship point of view, but as a journalist issue it could be an excellent case. I agree with the others that you should have the permission of the person involved in the problem, but you can research a little bit in other resourses to know what is in the depth of the situation, because sometimes the real problem is behind the things that we could watch on the surface.

Doug said...

I really feel this is more of a question of friendship ethics oppossed to journalistic ethics. The fact that the two people involved are both college students at the same university and the thief in question doesn't see the student journalist as such, or an informant, rather as a can be trusted friend/new customer, the student wondering if he should right the story should check his moral fiber and see if writing a story for the Foghorn is better than looking like a total creep to a fellow student and friend. priorities. . . .

George B. Sanchez said...

While this scenario is unique to journalism students, this sort of thing is not uncommon in reporters lives.
We are a member of the community we report on. Sometimes the degrees of separation between a reporter and their story is less than comfortable, but we do what we do and that is report.
It's ideal to have a clear understanding of what's on the record and what's not, what's casual conversation and what's official. You often befriend your sources, but no matter how close you become, they will always look at you first as a reporter, then a friend.
After reading the scenario, Doc Robertson poses the question: "Should he go forward with the story? If so, how? If not, why?"
There seemed to be a general consensus that the reporter should go forward, but at least six students seemed to get hung up on this question of cooperation and consent.
But instead, I'll start with Mr. Rinehart's response.
First of all, this would not make a boring story.
On a campus such as USF, it might make a petty or insignificant story, but not boring. If anything, I think it'd stir up a bit of controversy.
Essentially, this is a crime story and crime stories say more about our society and its values than any other beat in a newspaper. This is also a story, at its core, about abuse of authority.
Some of you argued that reporting on this person would betray a friend, but again, looking at the essence of the story, the friend has already betrayed the school, his employees, and those who trusted him with this job.
Maybe this person didn't think what he did was wrong. Well, neither do psychopaths, child molesters and gang members. One of the most interesting detail in a crime story is how the perpetrator justifies their action.
If a reporter makes an accusation against a person, private or public, or an agency, you can't make the accusation without identifying the accused. That's why you better make sure your reporting is solid and you've got your facts straight. As a reporter, you are going after a person, their credibility and their reputation. If you're wrong, at the least, you've tarnished your own reputation and could likely be facing a libel suit.
Back to this concern over cooperation and consent. No one has given a decent answer as to why we need this persons consent. That's because there is none.
We don't need consent to write anything (except maybe in the case of identifying a minor and that depends on the publication). Cooperation can help, but often times, and especially when you're making an accusation, you're not going to get it. Good reporting will prove what happened regardless of whether or not they speak with you. Good reporting will also make clear why the incident matters to the community.
As for reporting, I'd begin by speaking with people who bought passes from him. Confirm that this actually happened. Anonymity should be discussed with your editor before hand, because this will be an issue (and another topic to discuss). I'd then approach someone within public safety and see how many passes are accounted for. You have to confirm the accusation independent of what the buyers said. One way to do this is to ask: Do the numbers add up? Do the amount of passes released to the public equal the total amount made in sales? Follow the paper trail. Ask Public Safety to explain how passes are sold and then reveal what you found. You will eventually have to confront the person himself and ask for a comment -- at the least to explain himself. You never know what he'd say. Maybe he was selling the passes to help his mother pay for dialysis. Then your story has taken on a whole new dimension.
If reporters waited for consent to report, the public wouldn't have been alerted to: Watergate (which was initially dismissed by Nixon's white house and staff), the discovery of the Ford Pinto's fatal flaw, detainee abuse at Abu-Ghraib or James Risen's investigative piece on the National Security Agency's domestic spying.
As the doc points out, this maybe akin to stealing candy bars from a vending machine and selling them for a dime, but sometimes it's not the cost, but the principal that matters.
Last year, I broke a story about a judge who was fixing tickets for friends. After the District Attorney's Office investigated, they confirmed he had indeed broken the law, but the statute of limitations did not allow them to press charges. However, they were able to castigate him for tarnishing the public image of the county's judicial system and requested a review by his superiors. Within hours, he resigned.
But stepping away from this theoretical quandary and back to the University of San Francisco -- The student who came forward with the story shouldn't write the story because he is a friend of the parking pass con. That's a conflict of interest for the reasons many of you have discussed. So the story should be assigned to another reporter. Karma and its existence is up for debate, but anyone able to put two and two together will probably figure out how the story made it into the Foghorn. So if you don't want something out there, don't bring it up. As Doug noted, the reporter will soon discover "if writing a story for the Foghorn is better than looking like a total creep to a fellow student and friend."
Which takes us back to the "real world" -- today's source could be tomorrow's accused. I cover courts, prison and organized crime. The same people take different roles in different stories. Sometimes they don't like that. But I didn't go into journalism to make friends.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

What did I advise my reporting student and what did he choose to do?

But first a few comments on George Sanchez’ wise thoughts (thereby using narrative suspense as a pedagogical tool). Probably it would have been better to characterize the student who stole the parking permits as a classmate of my former student rather than an acquaintance, which implies friendship. But I understand why some of you first think of the situation in those terms. Even within that frame, I think we can agree – and if you don’t, speak up – that if we overheard a classmate confess to having done, or planning to do, certain acts, we would accept the fact that we should do something. I don’t think we would dispute the existence of a continuum of ethical and/or moral obligation. At one end might be stealing Dr. Robertson’s 49 cent ballpoint pen, having borrowed it in class; at the other end might be poisoning the Koret pool. Claims of group loyalty, fears of exclusion, a distaste for too strait-laced a moral sense are all explanations for not snitching on friends. We are prepared to consider the validity of each of these. That is a legitimate framework for discussing the ethics of this case.

Also, one might say that we need to add intervention to the list of preferred options. Who are the stakeholders? Who would have the most to gain by our turning this into a news story and who would have the most to lose? One might argue that the potential loss to the thief is greater than the loss to the university and that we should not turn it into a story for that reason. We might conclude that our ethical responsibility is to confront the permit thief and tell him that if he doesn’t stop stealing, we will turn him in. There is a bravery in this choice, is there not?

I welcome your comments on all of the above. But let’s move on to George’s points. Like George, I see no rationale for saying that we can’t use conversations overheard or actions seen in a public place as a basis for a story without the permission of the person who did these things – particularly when the conversation and/or action is as open as this apparently was. We might dispute the newsworthiness of the story. We might dispute the cost/benefit ratio to the various stakeholders if the story is published. We might have ethical concerns about the nuances of the situation; say, for instance, we lurk around the edges of a funeral eavesdropping on the mourners’ outbursts. But in this instance with this guy practically auctioning these passes off in front of God and everybody…. You certainly need to confront him, but I would have to be persuaded that journalistic ethics require you spare him.

Of course, this situation in its particulars is not representative of common ethical problems in journalism. But it does have a powerful general application. As George points out, when you move among people as a “known journalist,” particularly when you are working a beat, pleasant relations with the people on the beat ensue, and sometimes sources mistakenly think of you as more deeply committed to them than you are. They assume a kind of quid pro quo is going on. (And sometimes there is. There’s the topic for another discussion.) So George is right when he says that sometimes beat sources feel betrayed when you tell the truth about them in print or on the air. He’s also right that when something happens on your beat the reporting of which would damage your relations with the people on your beat one way to handle this problem is to hand off the story to another reporter. That reporter writes the “expose,” and you do not volunteer that the facts behind the story came from you in the first place. (But what if your poor burned beat sources confront you and ask if you started it all? Remind me to talk about the theoretical difference between simulation and dissimulation.)

Finally, George hints at one of deep ethical questions in journalism. *He hates to see you backing away from a crime story, finding reasons it shouldn’t be done.* If you think the best journalist is the most aggressive journalist, then sometimes by the very nature of their mission journalists will make ethical mistakes by going too far (however we choose to define too far). The price of the press doing its job is that sometimes it must go too far. One might argue that, as in war, the cost of victory is collateral damage. One might argue back that sometimes the price of victory is too high.

I hope that is the argument we will continue to have this semester.

Now, back to our original dilemma: Partly because I was glad to see a student reporter displaying an assertive spirit, I encouraged him to go ahead with the story. Because I tell my student reporters that they must never tell sources that “the story is just for journalism class and only my teacher will read it,” that particular student reporter and I negotiated a change in usual procedure. I told him I would give him veto rights over whether or not the final story was sent on to the Foghorn. In recollection, I now see an ethical decision I made without thinking: By giving him veto power, I was conceding that the classmate’s act was not so serious that I thought it had to be reported, in the newspaper or to campus authorities. I was, in effect, giving the pass thief a free pass of his own.

George suggests all the ways a good reporter would “surround” the story before talking to the pass thief. How right he is. Good job, George! But I let my reporter begin his research by confronting the pass thief. I don’t recall exactly how my reporter presented himself, whether he said he was writing a story or was considering writing a story and wanted to talk to the guy first. According to my student, the pass thief started to cry. At that point, my reporter gave in. He came back and said, “I can’t write this.”

And I said, “All right. Don’t.”

For all these years, I have thought that decision-maker in all this -- the “ethical center” -- was my student. But that, I see, is not the case. Aren’t these ethical exercises fun?

Comments, of course, welcome.

Dave Rinehart said...

I have to say I definitely laughed when I read that the parking permit purloiner started crying when confronted by - no, not Public Safety - a journalism student. We wield some pretty tremendous power.

A lot of what's been written seems to be based on assumptions, leading this discussion in a few confusing directions. I'm with George that waiting for source consent makes the difference between breaking news and late news (Watergate, Pinto, et. al), but there seem to be a lot of factors in this story which would need to be cleared up before a story is pursued. Obviously it came to light that what this person was doing was, in fact stealing. And before that, there was a lot of conjecture on the difference of what to do if it's a friend or an acquaintance. Based on the original story, I assumed that since this person was confidently selling these in class, that they thought what they were doing was perfectly fine. Since this person is not a friend but rather an acquaintance, I would NOT confront the person (because they'll cry). Instead, I would go to Public Safety and tell them that someone was selling parking permits in my class for $5 off regular price, and "do you guys know about this?" Who knows? Probably they'll get all pissed and you'll have to turn the person in. But since they were so confident in selling them, and since they work at Public Safety, the boys in blue might tell you what they told the supposed thief in the first place, "Oh yeah, we had a couple of extra lying around and we told him/her he/she could have them!"

And I still think it's a boring story. If this is a "crime" piece I think it doesn't belong in a newspaper, but rather Encyclopedia Brown: The College Years.