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Monday, August 17, 2015
Ethics Toolbox

It’s OK to balk before posting athletes’ records

By Andrew M. Seaman

One of the reasons I enjoy being a health reporter is that there are few topics that apply to everyone on such a personal level. Health is important for many reasons, including that it will likely dictate how long a person lives. But health is also tied to people’s career success.

For athletes, health is one of the most important assets they bring to a negotiating table. Maybe a baseball player can knock a ball out of the park, but what good is that if he can’t run the bases? For football players, what good is a player if they can’t hold the ball?

Following the 2015 July 4 holiday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter posted a picture of a medical record on Twitter that showed the New York Giants football defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul had a finger amputated following a firework accident. The reaction from Schefter’s 3.9 million Twitter followers and the Internet at large was swift and harsh.

People on Twitter called the posting of Pierre-Paul’s medical record unethical and possibly a violation of the U.S. medical privacy law known as HIPAA.

While HIPPA is a law that restricts access and discussion of medical information by medical professionals, the same does not apply to the majority of the U.S. population, including journalists. So, if Schefter acquired the information from a doctor or nurse, there was likely a HIPAA violation that the medical professional will be held accountable for.

For Schefter, the question is whether his Twitter post was a breach of journalism’s best practices, because – as journalists should know – what is legal is not always ethical.

In this case, the information contained on the displayed part of the medical record did not show more than what a reporter would likely include in a published story. In fact, I doubt Schefter’s actions would gain so much attention if the news of the player’s amputation was presented in a published article.

In my opinion, the bigger problem with Schefter’s Twitter post is that it’s lazy journalism, because it should be incorporated into a longer, contextualized story with comments from the Giants, the league and the player. Posting a picture that the player’s finger was amputated leaves a lot of questions open.

A journalist’s best defense is always a well-reported story.

“I know news organizations are not governed by HIPAA laws, but in hindsight I could and should have done even more here due to the sensitivity of the situation,” Schefter told Sports Illustrated in an interview.

Especially in today’s world where Twitter and Facebook are the first platforms journalists turn to, the urge to get pictures and photographic evidence out to the world can be overpowering.

One of the luxuries of being a journalist used to be having editors and producers check content before heading to the printer, online and on air. Today’s journalists still need to restrain themselves and allow time for discussions with those people.

For example, a journalist who has her hands on sensitive documents should take time to discuss the need to post it on social media or in a story. Editors, producers, news directors and other managers can provide valuable insights into what people may find overly intrusive.

In this case, Schefter told Sports Illustrated that “…in a day and age in which pictures and videos tell stories and confirm facts, in which sources and their motives are routinely questioned, and in which reporters strive to be as accurate as possible, this was the ultimate supporting proof.”

One could argue that Schefter should be confident enough with his reputation that his reports stand on their own. Also, he could easily tell readers the information is based on “documents obtained by ESPN.”

As in most newsroom actions, a lot of pain and grief can likely be avoided by taking one or two moments to consider the possible ramifications about what a journalist is about to do. Perhaps an extra moment taken by Schefter would have ended in the news being presented in a more palatable method.

Andrew Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a senior health reporter for Reuters. Interact on Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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