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Home > Reading Room > Did sexual abuse story cross the line of fairness?

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Did sexual abuse story cross the line of fairness?

By Fred Brown

When it comes to training, ethics is different from other newsroom workshops. It is a more esoteric subject than, say, using numbers in reporting, or writing without bias.

In ethics, there are no pat answers. The trick is to ask the right questions, to hash it out so you’re able to justify your decision to yourself and the public.

But most of an ethics workshop consists of looking at case studies. The best sessions focus on ethical issues that have surfaced locally. The case studies eventually go on the SPJ Web site for use in ethics discussions by teachers, students and professionals.

Here’s a case study from a session in Portland, Ore., last year. In addition to this brief summary, participants had copies of stories to guide their discussion.

Three weeks before the 2004 election, The (Portland) Oregonian published a sensational story. David Wu, a Democratic congressman seeking a fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither Wu nor the woman involved wanted to discuss the case now.

The Oregonian spent months trying to discover the truth about this persistent rumor. On Oct. 12, 2004, it published an article of more than 3,000 words explaining what it found out.

On that same day, Congressman Wu held a news conference to say he did something regrettable in his youth, but he didn’t think it was relevant now. Other media picked up the story, of course, and his Republican opponent used it in her campaign.

Here’s a quick summary:

Wu and his ex-girlfriend were science majors at Stanford University. She broke up with him in spring of 1976. That summer, Wu was questioned by Stanford campus police after his ex-girlfriend said he tried to force her to have sex with him.

Wu told police it was consensual. He was not arrested. The woman declined to pursue criminal prosecution and didn’t file a formal disciplinary complaint.

Wu refused to be interviewed or to answer written questions about the incident when The Oregonian asked him about it 28 years later. Wu’s ex-girlfriend also declined to comment, either in person or through a representative. Stanford officials wouldn’t discuss it either, citing university policy and student confidentiality laws.

So how did The Oregonian get its story? Here’s the newspaper’s explanation, included as part of the first story:

“Reporters contacted scores of former Stanford students, current and retired university officials and professors, law associates, and former campaign staffers and friends of Wu to determine what occurred.

“The account that follows is based on recollections of the Stanford patrol commander, the woman’s counselor, two professors who supervised dormitories at the time and several classmates who were on campus that year.”

Despite the story, Wu won re-election by a decisive 3-to-2 margin.

Workshop participants were asked to consider what questions the newspaper should have asked — and answered — before it decided to publish.

One question participants raised was whether The Oregonian was looking for its own sex scandal because an alternative newspaper had finally run down a similar long-ago sex story involving a former governor.

There were other, perhaps more obvious questions. Was the story relevant to voters today? Certainly it’s interesting — sex always is — but was it useful? Fair? And if you were a competing news outlet in Portland, what would you have done after The Oregonian broke the story?

Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver.
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