Even non-sports fans may have had a difficult time avoiding word of baseball slugger Sammy Sosa being inducted into the Cultural Hall of Shame late Tuesday. Now, please, take one or two steps back and consider this tidy example of how our news is made and consumed.
Word spread Tuesday evening that the New York Times, citing unnamed lawyers, disclosed that Sosa "is among the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003." There was anonymous testing that year and no names associated with the process have been formally revealed, nor should they have been.
But as soon as word got out about the Times report, virtually every media outlet, including ones with supposed rules about knee-jerk regurgitation of certain stories, repeated the story.
Sports talk radio and cable sports channels, notably ESPN and the new Major League Baseball channel, went into rhetorical overdrive, pontificating ad nauseam about Sosa, a former Chicago Cubs icon. A favorite, facile topic of the sports guys was whether Sosa can now make into the Hall of Fame.
In fact, there were actual writers who have votes in the process opining on same (how their organizations let them be part of such contests, and thus make the very news they both speculate and report on, is anybody's guess).
Did any of these folks wait to independently verify the story before blabbing and blabbing? Did anybody say to a television booker, "Sally, I just don't know a thing about that claim so I'd better take a pass"?
Wednesday morning newspaper sports sections were expectedly filled with the righteous indignation of sports columnists, one of our most frequent self-appointed arbiters of public morals. Sammy was toast. But did any of those guys wait to independently verify the information? I suspect that most would be convulsed by the thought of desisting from eviscerating Sosa and actually commit an act of journalism by making a few calls to discern if the darn claim was true.
Lost in the fray, too, are, some rather distinct ethical questions about those supposedly revealing confidential information from that 2003 testing. Remember, these are lawyers, with a supposed ethical obligation to protect the confidentiality of that test. At minimum, there's a stunning lack of fairness to Sosa, now supposedly outed in the same way as Alex Rodriguez was recently (he was part of the same 2003 testing process).
I felt that there was only one move to make: call the world capital of journalistic ethics, namely Greencastle, Indiana.
Well, it's actually DePauw University in Greencastle, where the smartest guy I know on the general topic, Bob Steele, is employed as the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism (liberals, please trust him despite the fact that Pulliam's nephew was Dan Quayle). His business card is packed these days since his regular gig is down in Florida as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute.
"Clearly, any news organizations picking up the New York Times story should weigh journalistic ethical concerns. Is the New York Times story accurate? How do you know? Can you independently verify the information? How do you verify information that came from anonymous sources? "
"Fairness is also a factor in this case. Is it fair to repeat serious allegations made to another newspaper by anonymous sources? Is it fair to cherry pick certain names from a long list of individuals (even if those individuals who are named have been the "stars?"
"Also, the Times' story says these lawyers did not know the full story on the drug testing. They 'did not know the substance for which Sosa tested positive.' That creates a big contextual weakness in the story. Sosa might have used a banned substance, but key information is missing. Could there be another reason he failed the test? Could the test have been flawed?"
In addition, Steele threw out the notion of ethical questions surrounding the anonymous sources themselves. As he noted, The Times' story reads: "The lawyers who had knowledge of Sosa's inclusion on the 2003 list...spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified as discussing material that is sealed by a court order."
So, says Steele, "Was it ethical for these sources to reveal information that was proprietary and legally protected? Did the lawyers have a justifiable, higher ethical purpose that would override any ethical failure in leaking the information to the journalists? Was it ethical for the Times' to use information so obtained? Did this case and the information revealed reach the threshold of profound importance that would justify such ethical violations?"
Anyway, could somebody now tell me what it is that we know for absolute certain about Sosa? I do hate to get in the way of punditry---or provocative blogging! But, please, just tell me what we know with absolute certainty.