Paper shouldn’t have exposed ‘angel’

Some days, I’m proud to be a journalist, and other days, I want to hang my head and cry.
Like any profession, journalists suffer the reputation of “the media” when a few bad seeds ruin it for the rest of us. Doctors, lawyers and certainly politicians get the same reputation.
But last week, a few things in the press made me chew on some issues.
The Grand Forks Herald (N.D.) identified the “anonymous angel” who donated $15 million to flood victims and asked that her name not be disclosed.
Despite pleas from elected officials and community leaders, the Herald decided to publish her name. They discovered her identity through airport records and traced her name to a credit card that paid to refuel her chartered plane. Though the decision to publish her name certainly could be argued reasonable because she did a charitable, positive deed, for me it was a sad moment in the profession.
The paper, and others in the media, have stated that the Herald committed a great community service in letting its readers know who the donor was. But tell me: How has the public benefited from knowing her name?
Now we know how much she’s worth, who she married and where she goes shopping in Paris — all wrapped into a one-day feature story. Give me a break. This woman wanted to give a charitable donation without media attention to herself. And what did the local media do? The day the story came out in the Herald, dozens of other media organizations identified her and did the same story about her.
Thanks a lot, I’ll bet she’s thinking. And how did you spend your $2,000?
In weighing the public service in discovering and printing information and the private wishes of the anonymous party, I don’t think the Herald’s decision holds water.
This is not a story about withholding information. This is a story about privacy and respecting the wishes of people.
The Herald’s reasoning was that they had no interest in publishing the donor’s name until public officials in town said she visited Grand Forks during the weekend and wanted them to publish information about her reactions to the visit. In essence, they wanted the newspaper to print information about the donor, without revealing her name.
“We’d have been subject to criticism if we hadn’t tried to find out and printed what we knew,” stated the Herald’s publisher Michael Maidenberg, and managing editor Mike Jacobs in a signed May 20 editorial.
It certainly makes sense that the paper should report truthful information it knows. But pursuing to find out the identity of the “anonymous angel” stepped over a crucial line.
Members of the media have goofed regarding the privacy issue a number of times. Remember Arthur Ashe, who was virtually forced to disclose that he had AIDS in 1992, after USA Today reporters asked him questions about it? And in 1991, a tabloid published the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape.
We screw up in the media big time when it comes to ethics. And the unfortunate part is that when we do it, the story goes national. It’s called the media bandwagon. (I’m not eager to get on, so I’m not going to republish the name of the donor.) Once something has been published, the rest of the media organizations feel they have been beaten to a story, and it invariably spreads like wildfire across the nation’s newswires. Once the said controversy is out in the open, media organizations put on their machismo and feel like they have to stand proudly and firmly behind their decisions. (Do you recall the unsubstantiated reports from former JFK press secretary and ABC correspondent Pierre Salinger about TWA Flight 800 being shot down by a U.S. missile?)
I believe in the First Amendment and the freedom of speech more than anything. Certainly, the public has the right to know, and the newspaper has a right to publish. But in cases of privacy like the “anonymous angel,” I think it raises an issue in which we have to examine our human side, not our official side. We have to weigh the value of the information against the damage. While we don’t think we’re in the business to damage people’s lives (well, at least those who don’t deserve it), sometimes we do just that.
As I criticize the editors of the Herald, I do so with regret because a few weeks ago, I thought of them as my heroes. I was proud that the reporters of that paper were of the same profession.
When I read their stories about the flood and the columns by Chuck Haga of the Star Tribune, I couldn’t help but wish I could have been there to do my duty.
Journalists of the Herald gave up their homes, and even their newsroom, to publish the paper in spite of the flood. President Bill Clinton held up an edition of the paper when he visited Grand Forks as evidence that the community still existed, despite the loss of the city.
The Herald still operates a makeshift newsroom at a local elementary school in Manvel, N.D.
During the flood, the staff worked for days on little sleep and little else but their civic duty to let the city know what was happening to their town.
The reporters fought like warriors. If the townsfolk couldn’t help the dikes from breaking, the reporters at least could still put their fingers in the holes of the community. They reported what was left of the city and who was where. In a time of chaos, the Herald remained the only glue left of a city devastated. It showed how important a newspaper, a radio station, a TV station is to a community. It demonstrated why many of us are in the business: to record without fail or prejudice the events of the day.
When I look at what a turn the Herald has made as far as public opinion in the past few weeks, I think it shows the two faces of journalism. We’re not your best friend, and honestly, our whole purpose is not to dig up dirt on people. We’re supposed to tell you about your community. And we’re supposed to do it with respect.
I acclaim the brave reporters and editors for their dedication to their jobs. But their recent decision to name the “angel” reminds me that we in this profession are neither crusaders nor muckrakers — we’re human.
Sara Goo’s column appears Tuesdays in The Daily. She welcomes comments viae-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor may be sent [email protected]