A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

MEDIA LEADERS FORUM: When is sex a story?

By Quill

This is the 15th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

The intersection of sex and politics has always been a perilous one for journalists. The pendulum has swung from no disclosure, a la the media’s total silence on the affairs of FDR and JFK, to reporting everything, including rumors and innuendo in the case of Gary Hart.

Journalists have come to agree there is a happy medium somewhere between these two extremes, but exactly where that middle ground lies is still somewhat of a mystery. Just because information on politicians’ sex lives is available and even accurate does not automatically mean it is relevant to the jobs they do. Private facts about public figures still need to be linked to public, political behaviors before publishing becomes justifiable. There is a fine line between reporting on personality and covering political character.

When a politician’s character is truly an issue, journalists have another long list of concerns to consider: the relationship of power and authority; privacy versus the public’s need to know; the effect on third parties; the quality of the evidence; and yes, outcomes and consequences, even the unintended ones. The case below presents some of these dilemmas for the journalists involved.

This case was written by Renita Coleman, Craig Freeman and Judith Sylvester, faculty at the Manship School of Mass Communications. The Media Leaders Forum is a project funded by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


When sex is the story

This Midwestern state takes its politics seriously, and, even though it is small, it is proud to be the home of two former presidents. The state is considered to be a proving ground for White House contenders. Also, its early primary makes it a crucial state for presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

The Times-Leader, the daily newspaper in the capital city, is the state’s newspaper of record for government news. Reporters on the capitol beat have been hearing stories since shortly after the current governor took office that he has been having an affair with the head of the state’s division of parks and recreation. It seems to be common knowledge among state employees, legislators and other government types that the handsome governor and the DPR head, who is half his age, are romantically involved. It is the subject of daily e-mail and water cooler gossip in the government buildings. A security officer told a reporter he saw the two coming out of a hotel room together, but refuses to go on the record for fear of being fired. In fact, no one to whom reporters have spoken is willing to go on the record yet.

The DPR chief has only a high school degree – far less education than anyone else who has held this position. The governor, who is independently wealthy, pays her salary out of his own pocket, not with the taxpayer’s money as is usually done with this position. So far, no serious questions of policy or other wrongdoing or mistakes have surfaced under her jurisdiction.

The governor is married and has two teenage daughters. While he is a moderate conservative, he does not include a “family values” plank in his platform or proselytize about morality in his speeches. There have been no other rumors of womanizing in his past, and no women have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. There is no evidence that he has supported legislation that would favor any of the DPR official’s relatives or personal causes.

Reporters and editors at the Times-Leader have discussed the merits of reporting the rumors. Readers in this conservative, Midwestern community have made it clear they do not want to hear about politicians’ private lives unless it affects their job. The paper has done one “personality piece” on the parks and recreation head, pointedly reporting on her education and salary arrangement. But without stronger evidence of abuse of power by her or the governor, or some way the affair has affected their jobs or the citizens, the editors don’t feel they can go public with mere rumors. However, most of the staff feels that they have to do something because the rumors are just too widespread to leave unaddressed. Furthermore, the abuse of power is a very real possibility, and no one has checked it out.

Management is currently weighing the staff’s request to commit a small team of reporters to this story. Normally, the staff of this 75,000-circulation newspaper does not have the time to work exclusively on a piece of investigative journalism. It would mean a considerable amount of money for overtime and freelancers to cover the daily beat news of the reporters who would be pulled off their regular duties to investigate. The publisher and executive editor also worry that after spending all that time and money, they would be tempted to run something – anything – even if they didn’t uncover evidence of how the affair has affected the citizens to support running such a piece.

They are also considering the timing of the investigation. Right now, the governor has been in office for two years and won’t come up for re-election for two more; campaigning will not begin in earnest for another year. He has said he intends to run again. Reporters have argued that this is the right time to conduct such an investigation because it won’t interfere with the electoral process. If the governor is having an affair and has shown favoritism or abuse of power because of his relationship, the reporters argue, the public has a right to know. It is the newspaper’s job to disclose anything it knows that bears on a candidate’s fitness for office, they say. By conducting the investigation now, if it should result in findings of improper behavior, it won’t look like the timing of the investigation is designed to damage the governor’s re-election campaign. Furthermore, it is well known that the governor has higher political aspirations, a seat in Congress and possibly the White House one day.


How the leaders handled the case

Should management commit the resources to investigate the governor’s affair?

Bob Priddy: Stop right here. The question carries the assumption that the governor is having an affair to begin with. If this question is the basis for discussion, it is flawed from the beginning. The question should be, “Should management commit the resources to investigate rumors that the governor might be having an affair?” That is an important difference. Failure to recognize it establishes an agenda from the get-go and can influence later decisions that can make a story progressively less fair and make future decisions less objective.

Next: Understand that capital cities are almost never without rumors that one high government official or another is diddling, drinking or doing things for dough. Reporters on capitol beats pick up this stuff, and it becomes press corps fodder for jokes and speculation. This talk feeds on itself. People start constructing circumstantial cases and feeding them into the mill, and before long “facts” are being circulated.

Are the rumors really widespread or are they just intensely circulated among the capitol crowd?

Abuse of power? Apparently there has been none yet. A “very real possibility?” C’mon, now. This is a newspaper, not a 24-hour news channel that has to find something, anything, to fill time. Report the news, if there is news. Besides, the track record seems to undermine that contention. It is easy to build a case based on talk, speculation and assumptions. The phrasing of the question indicates somebody already has done that. Somebody else better recognize that. And somebody else better be in charge.

The next basic thing to do is to send the newspaper’s top state government reporter out to do two interviews. Talk to the governor. He’s probably heard the rumors, too. Ask him directly about the relationship with the parks director. Talk to the parks director. Same questions. Direct questions about the “nudge-nudge” conversations in government halls. Let them both know up front that the newspaper is looking into the rumors. No reason to invest a lot of time combing through fog and wading through innuendo if you don’t have to. Make some decisions about a wider investigation based on the answers reporters get. This is hardly something that requires stealth.

If they’re having an affair, run the story.

David Anable: Absolutely. Checking out potential abuse of authority and office is what journalism is meant to be all about. And, in this case, there is a sufficiently unusual relationship already apparent between the governor and his DPR head to warrant a thorough investigation.

Marcy McGinnis: Yes, management should commit resources to the investigation. Though the resources spent on this don’t have to be as extensive as indicated. I’d assign a one or two-person team to do it.

Alex Jones: No. The resources for investigative reporting are so scarce that using them for this story seems a waste, or at best, not the best way to spend the resources. If there is no apparent problem, I see no reason to put this ahead of what must be more important issues.

Bruce Tomaso: Of course they investigate it. There are many ways that a governor’s having an affair with a state employee could affect his performance – or that employee’s performance – in office. If these two are sleeping together, it’s hard to imagine that the governor is treating the Division of Parks and Recreation the same way he’s treating other state departments. It’s hard to imagine that he’s objective in evaluating the job performance of the division’s head, his mistress. And it’s hard to imagine that voters in his state wouldn’t want to know what their chief executive is doing.

If this affair is going on, it’s news. If management at “the state’s newspaper of record for government news” can’t see that, they’re in the wrong line of work. (General advice to newsroom managers everywhere: When good reporters say, “Hey, we should check this out, I think there’s a story here,” they’re usually right.)

What should the newspaper do if there is no story of abuse of power after spending so much time and money on an investigation?

Priddy: If you don’t have a story, you don’t have a story. It’s a few days of your life you’ll never have again. Get over it. The only thing worse than wasting time on a story that does not exist is wasting more time writing it and wasting the time of the readers who will read a story that isn’t a story. Fill that hole with news, with something of value to the reader.

Anable:Too bad … that’s simply the cost of being in the reporting business. Sometimes even the best journalism finds that there are no abuses to report. Or that it is impossible to substantiate them. So the story goes out the window or, more farsightedly, into the wait-and-see file.

However, it should be possible to find out how and why the apparently modestly qualified DPR head got her job in the first place. That may itself be worth a follow-up story to the earlier “personality piece.”

And, no, I would not publish a piece just proving an affair between the two, unless the story also established that this relationship had a clearly negative impact on either or both job performances. See question 3, below.

McGinnis: If there is no story of abuse of power, then they don’t do anything on it at all.

Jones: They shouldn’t spend the money. And if they do, and there is nothing there, they should report nothing unless there is a true swarm of gossip. In that case, their report should say that they investigated it and found nothing. Short and simple.

Tomaso: I assume that by “no story of abuse of power” you mean that the rumors of a sexual affair could not be substantiated. (Any affair between a governor and the head of a division of state government, it seems to me, entails at least the inherent potential for abuse of power.) In any case, if there’s no story, there’s no story. The amount of time and money you spent to find that out doesn’t change the facts.

What consideration should the newspaper give to the governor’s wife and daughter? His own privacy?

Priddy: None. Truth sometimes hurts the innocent. If the result of the investigation is painful to the governor’s family, that’s an issue for him and his family to deal with. This investigation is about two people – the governor and the parks director. At this point, the first family is not a party to it.

Anable: The governor, his wife and daughters do have a right to reasonable family privacy. But if the governor’s relationship with the DPR head is damaging his or her work for the state, or leading to a clear abuse of power, then the rights of the public to honest and proper job performance must outweigh privacy rights. A story should then be published that documents this, while doing minimum harm to the family.

Jones: The governor and his family are entitled to reasonable privacy. His sex life is in this area, but it would be a legitimate subject if there was reason to believe malfeasance was taking place. But if not, I think there are more important issues.

Tomaso: What consideration did the governor give to his wife and daughters? And if he wants privacy, there’s a place he can go get it. It’s called the private sector.

What would you do if this had occurred during the election? How would that change the issues you would consider?

Priddy: A story is a story. You run it or you don’t run it on the basis of its merits. And you run it when it is news, if it is news. The decision of whether to investigate is not affected by the calendar. Neither is a decision about when to publish findings, if there are any. This is a newspaper, not a rumorpaper, not a speculationpaper, not a non-newspaper. If you get facts, print them.

The harder issue is whether the rumors become a whispering campaign during the election year or become an open campaign matter. That is an entirely different scenario.

Anable: The basic ethical judgment above does not change with an election, but the timing becomes a larger issue. Ideally, the governor and DPR head should be given enough time to respond to a story before Election Day, so that the public has an opportunity to decide on the accuracy and significance of any allegations.

McGinnis: The timing of the investigation is irrelevant vis-a-vis the election. The fact that there is an election would not change the issues I would consider. I would investigate the rumor and see if there is any evidence that it is true and proceed from there regardless of timing.

Jones: No change because of election. If there were a serious reason to believe the governor’s relationship with this woman was calling into question his integrity, it should be pursued whenever, election or no. Like the (Los Angeles Times) piece of Schwarzenegger groping women. That was about something chronic, and should have been reported.

Tomaso: I can’t see how this distinction would affect any decision I made. If the governor is sleeping with a division head, it’s news before the election, during the election, after the election. It’s news as long as he and she are going to work each day in offices that belong to the taxpayers.