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The Media’s Foul Ball

WHAT: The Chicago Cubs in 2003 were five outs from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when a 26-year-old fan tried to grab a foul ball, preventing outfielder Moises Alou from catching it. The Florida Marlins rallied for an 8-3 victory to tie the National League championship series in game 6, then went on to defeat the Cubs. The man in the left field seats who deflected the ball was escorted by security guards from Wrigley Field after he was threatened and cursed by angry fans and pelted with beer and debris.

The hapless fan's identity was unknown. But he became recognizable through televised replays as the young baby-faced man in glasses, a Cubs baseball cap and earphones who bobbled the ball and was blamed for costing the Cubs a trip to the World Series.

Question: Given the potential danger to the man, should he be identified by the media?

WHO: After working through the night and the next morning, the Chicago Sun-Times identified the infamous Cubs fan as Steve Bartman, the Lincolnshire, Ill., consulting firm where he worked and the suburb where he lived. Sun-Times reporter Frank Main, who covered the story, explained why the Sun-Times editor at the time decided to reveal Bartman's identity. “He was the center of a national news story and there was no legal or moral problem in naming him. We did not think there was a serious possibility of his being assassinated by fans. We decided to go with the story and tell readers what we knew.” Chicago Tribune editors said they printed Bartman's name after he released a statement saying, "I am truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan's broken heart." James Burke, a member of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists team, said identifying Bartman was "an act of irresponsible journalism" and a violation of the SPJ ethics code which urges journalists to minimize harm. Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley chastised the media for identifying Bartman, and was quoted by the Sun-Times saying "do you put your CEO's name and address out?... You wouldn't do that. You'd be fired tomorrow...And that is not fair to that young man..."

WHY: One of the highest principles in the SPJ code of ethics is to seek truth and report it. But journalists also should balance that principle with others, such as whether revealing Bartman's identity could result in harm. Other than the statement expressing regret for deflecting the ball from Alou's glove, Bartman made no further comment or allowed interviews. He has remained a private figure who has insisted on his privacy and made every attempt to avoid the publicity he was getting. The Chicago Tribune justified identifying Bartman by saying other media were doing it.

HOW: Journalists have an obligation to consider the honorable course of action, such as whether Bartman should have been identified and whether his identity was something the public needed to know. This was, after all, a baseball game in which Bartman was a mere spectator. Bartman did not lose the game; the Chicago Cubs lost the game and the series. Each news organization should consider acting independently.

At least one journalist at the time thought the Chicago Tribune might have distinguished itself by continuing to refuse to identify Bartman even though he issued a statement and others were identifying him. The SPJ code of ethics urges journalists to show compassion and special sensitivity when dealing with inexperienced sources or subjects. That could have applied to Bartman. Journalists could have asked him if he wanted to be identified before doing so. This was not a case where the public needed to know his identity. And in retrospect, Bartman has never surfaced again from his momentary, unwanted celebrity. It was thrust upon him against his will. He was a victim of fate and happened to be where a foul ball fell from the sky.

In his statement, Bartman said in part: "I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play." The media could have taken pity on the guy.

— by Casey Bukro, Chicago Headline Club

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