Red flag for badgering

Ombudsman takes sportswriter to task

When a well-known sports figure drops out of sight, his fans are curious. How far should a newspaper go to satisfy that curiosity?

By Kerry Sipe

Kerry Sipe is public editor of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, Va.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 7 (October 1989), p. 5.

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.

 

Tim Richmond is dead. For him, the hurting is over.

But while he was alive – as it happened, the last week of his life – a sportswriter for The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star decided to get to the bottom of persistent rumors that the flamboyant former stock-car racer had AIDS.

The reporter, Dave Lewis, passed on to readers the gossip he had picked up around the NASCAR circuit. He had called a Florida hospital and his story described the vague responses of anonymous nurses, switchboard operators and medical-records clerks he had questioned about Richmond’s condition.

Incredibly, the writer described a conversation with “a man in a barely audible voice,” a patient in a room the reporter said he believed to be Richmond’s. The man denied that Richmond was in the room and apologized for not being able to help. The reporter summarized his denial as “puzzling.” There was an unmistakable implication that the feeble voice belonged to a disease-wracked sports figure who had dared at death’s door to deny the press the most intimate details of his medical history.

Several readers were shocked.

As the newspapers’ ombudsman, I, too, was appalled at so crass and mean-spirited a violation of a man’s privacy. I said so in my weekly column.

I asked Sports Editor Bob Kinney why the story had been published.

“What we have here is a guy who is very visible, very flamboyant, almost larger than life, who, all of a sudden, drops off the [racing] circuit,” Kinney said. “He disappears. No one knows why. We don’t even know if he is dead or alive.

“It’s not unfair to ask why,” Kinney said. “In fact, I think that’s our job.”

At the time the story was published, Kinney acknowledged to me, the sports staff of The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star did not know whether Richmond had AIDS or not. “We could be wrong. I don’t dispute that,” he said. “But if we’re wrong, everybody’s wrong.”

But Kinney did know that Richmond did not want anyone to know that he was sick. He had made that clear through his family, his doctors and his racing organization.

We do not know why. Perhaps it was because he knew that associating a person with exposure to AIDS frequently results in ostracism. Perhaps he knew that many people still falsely assume that AIDS affects only homosexuals and drug addicts.

I cast my lot with those editors who have policies extending anonymity to AIDS patients and those who have been exposed to the virus. The nature of the illness, even in obituaries, is not published unless there is a compelling reason for doing so.

One argument for publishing an AIDS diagnosis might be to warn those who may have been unwittingly exposed. But this justification requires that the cause of death of the famous and the non-famous be revealed with equal vigor. This is not done.

Richmond’s fans couldn’t help being curious about his condition. But in my view their curiosity, even when compassionate, was trivial when weighed against his right to privacy about matters relating to his own body.

Less than two weeks after the rumors about Richmond were published, he died. His obituary said the attending physician had refused to reveal the cause of death, citing the wishes of the family and medical confidentiality.

Ten days later, with the blessings of Richmond’s survivors, the doctor called a press conference to confirm that the driver had died of complications caused by AIDS contracted during a heterosexual liaison.

“There’s no way of knowing who that woman was,” the Associated Press quoted Dr. David W. Dodson as saying.

Dodson explained that the family had decided to break their silence because “They lost a son to AIDS and they don’t want other parents to lose a son. . . . People need to take precautions.”

Journalists, too, need to take precautions – precautions to ensure that pursuit of a story never makes them less than humane.

But the lesson is a hard one.

An internal memo to the sports staff, issued in response to my criticism, admitted that the story may have gone “beyond reporting to badgering.”

“Having said all this,” the memo read, “don’t get the idea that I think Sipe was correct in the basic premise of his column, that we shouldn’t be bothering Richmond and/or his family. I couldn’t disagree more with that. Tim Richmond was a public figure, a very public figure, and when he dropped from sight it was news. It also was news as to why he dropped from sight. If we made mistakes in this story, going after it in the first place wasn’t one of them. We can, must and will continue to be aggressive in seeking the news, and Tim Richmond and his illness was news, regardless of what Kerry Sipe says.”