Making the right ethical choice can mean winning by losing

It was a hot story and they were racing neck and neck with another channel. Then they stopped and asked themselves: Was it really news — or just keeping up with the competition?

By Tom Gasparoli

Tom Gasparoli is an IRE – and Emmy-winning reporter for WCCO in Minneapolis (MN).

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 9 (October 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Channel 4 in Minneapolis has a tradition of winning the big stories. And when we lose, there had better be a good explanation.

But we also have a tradition of caution when it comes to damaging personal reputations or hyping a story of questionable news value.

Those two traditions clashed this July over the issue of keeping up with the competition by identifying an AIDS victim who was an orthopedic surgeon. As such, he had regularly performed some of the most invasive procedures in medicine.

How to cover AIDS in relation to health care workers is a sensitive and difficult dilemma and one that newsrooms across the country are now facing on a daily basis. The public seems to want to know all it can, but that doesn’t automatically mean stories should be done.

The conundrum landed squarely on my shoulders when I came in at 2:00 to work the late shift. We’d learned that Channel 11 was running a six-minute investigative piece on the 10:00 news on Dr. Thomas Comfort, formerly of a respected local hospital and regional trauma center.

Newsroom management was sequestered in an unrelated meeting but had left word that I was to see if we could match the competition’s story. I sensed that they feared we’d lose out because of our late start. I vowed we wouldn’t.

Dr. Comfort had been dead for a year. Hospital personnel didn’t know, or couldn’t obtain, answers to what I thought were the key questions: How long had he been infected? What kinds of surgery did he perform while infected? Did the state know of his HIV status? What was the risk of transmission? Did his patients know? Should they?

The Minnesota viewing public was especially primed for stories about AIDS-infected doctors. A local physician named Richard Duff had recently made the cover of Newsweek because of his candor about being HIV-positive. And the state health department was then in the midst of conducting a controversial, highly publicized “lookback” [patient notification and testing] on another HIV-positive doctor at Duff’s clinic who had delivered babies while having open lesions on his hands and arms.

By 6:00, I had found Dr. Comfort’s personal physician, an AIDS expert, and he’d answered most of the questions I considered critical. (Channel 11 had never spoken to him.) I definitely thought we needed an interview with the state expert on lookbacks, but we couldn’t get it because he was out of town.

When Comfort’s doctor said he believed the state should have done a lookback and that Comfort’s patients had a right to know about his HIV status, we felt we had enough to go with.

At 7:30, the doctor agreed to go on camera. At 8:00, as we taped, he changed his story.

He seemed to want to avoid criticizing the state for not doing a lookback on Dr. Comfort. I confronted him about his flip-flop and he said he had the right to reverse himself. He added that Comfort had stopped doing surgery as soon as he tested HIV-positive.

It was now 8:30 and I was in a real bind. The station was about to start airing teases on the story. I raced back to the newsroom. We canceled the teases.

With only 75 minutes to air time, I consulted news director John Lansing. It was a ratings period, when our 10:00 news and Channel 11’s run neck and neck, and we knew the piece would go over big.

We reviewed the story elements. The doctor was dead. The state had considered, but for some unknown reason rejected, a lookback. Our broadcast would, in effect, provide patient notification. But was that our job?

Lansing pointed out that we’d already run a 90-minute special highlighting the major issues about AIDS-infected health care workers. He felt viewers knew enough about the questions that needed to be asked, even though there was sharp disagreement among experts about the answers.

“So what’s the news here?” John asked. “Another doctor with AIDS. Do we know why the state didn’t initiate a lookback? No. Do we know if Dr.

Comfort actually held the scalpel, or just instructed residents after he was infected? No.

“Are we in danger of inflaming the public unnecessarily and creating unwarranted hysteria? Yes. We’re not in the business of outing doctors,”

Lansing concluded.

“But we also know that there’ll be a press conference tomorrow and that patients will be calling the hospital (which had already set up a hotline and free HIV testing),” I argued. “Experts will be saying patients have a right to be informed and that the research on transmission risk is inconclusive.”

“Yes,” Lansing responded. “But in my opinion, Channel 11 is starting a fire that shouldn’t be set. We’ll help put it out tomorrow. We won’t help ignite it tonight.”

I had put a great deal of work into the story and I didn’t like losing. Besides, I personally feel patients have the right to know if their surgeon is infected. I felt Dr. Comfort’s physician was hiding his true position on the lookback. I also knew the Comfort family (one of whom was a doctor) was desperately hoping there would be no story.

Lansing asked for my final recommendation. After thinking it through, I agreed with his instincts. We just couldn’t justify the story. People would be buzzing about Channel 11’s scoop the next day, but our integrity would be intact.

Most journalists will face the same kind of quandary we did again and again over the next few years, as AIDS continues taking its toll. My advice to them is the same as I’d offer on any story.

Be thorough, thoughtful, fair and sensitive. Don’t let competitive pressures force a revision of your standards or your common sense.

We needed to be very aggressive that night, yet we chose silence. It just wasn’t news. 

 

Tweets
  • Show more like this.
  • Show fewer like this.
  • What is this?
  • Show more like this.
  • Show fewer like this.
  • What is this?