Steve Schulz’s social life often led him to downtown Minneapolis, where he’d attend ball games, go to the theater or just have drinks with friends. Since he was there so much, he decided to sell his house in the suburbs and get an apartment downtown, where he could walk to his favorite hangouts.
Shortly after he arrived in 2019, the coronavirus shut down the city and police killed George Floyd, leading to numerous downtown protests, some of them ending with riots. There were other issues: noise from drag racers, more frequent sirens, more protests, more riots and rising crime. Schulz, who had convinced his mother to move to downtown before things got bad, decided it was time for both to leave.
He wrote a story in February explaining why he planned to abandon urban dwelling after three years, and the local paper, the Star Tribune, agreed to publish it as an op-ed. A couple of days after it ran, the newspaper added a note to the online version informing readers that Schulz has a criminal record. He was furious.
A jury convicted Schulz in 2014 of soliciting a minor online, and he served five months in prison. His arrest came during a police sting operation in which he exchanged messages with an officer posing as a teen. The Star Tribune published a story about Schulz’s case shortly after his arrest.
Schulz said he accepted the punishment for what he says was his first and only criminal offense — a crime he insists had nothing to do with the topic of his op-ed. He said it was unethical for the newspaper to bring up the crime and cited several lines in the SPJ Code of Ethics to support his argument:
- Minimize Harm: Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.
- Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.
Scott Gillespie, the Star Tribune’s editorial page editor and vice president, said the newspaper was being transparent with readers by appending the note to the story. Schulz’s crime was relevant, he said, given that his op-ed noted increased crime as a factor in his decision to leave the city.
“The commentary was a personal testimony about the author’s uncomfortable feelings in the face of rising crime and ‘unsavory’ people in downtown Minneapolis,” Gillespie said in a note to SPJ. “Some readers in the online comment section, on Twitter and in e-mails to me argued that his own record was relevant in that context. On reflection, we agreed.”
The newspaper granted Schulz’s request to remove the op-ed from the Star Tribune website, Gillespie said, also referencing the SPJ Code of Ethics.
“As you know, the SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to be ‘accountable and transparent’ and to ‘respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness,’” Gillespie wrote. “We try to do that as much as possible.
Schulz said Gillespie is missing the “big picture.” He contends a person convicted of a non-violent crime who serves out their sentence should not be perpetually punished.
“How long will this yoke of a mistake be around people’s necks?” Schulz said during an SPJ-sponsored webinar that highlighted his dispute with the newspaper. “If more people took the position of the Star Tribune, you’re excluding a significant number of people who can participate in community dialog through a newspaper.”
Retired journalist Harold Jackson, who served on editorial boards at newspapers in Birmingham, Alabama; Baltimore; Philadelphia and Houston, said while he agrees Schulz’s crime was relevant, the newspaper should have checked his past before assigning him op-ed space.
“It also appears that a more thorough search of its own records before publishing a commentary would have revealed the same pertinent information about its writer that was appended to his piece after its publication,” said Jackson, who led the editorial staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 10 years.
Gillespie acknowledged the oversight.
“With hindsight, we would have sought to include the relevant background information in the commentary when initially published,” he said. “If Mr. Schulz had objected, we would have declined the piece.”
Rod Hicks is Director of Ethics and Diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.