Is Disclosing Medical Records an Unhealthy Reporting Method?

First published on al.com.  Click here.

Note: This column includes implied obscenity in a tweet presented later in the article.

To anyone who doesn’t know, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter caused quite the ethical dust-up when he ran a tweet showing Jason Pierre-Paul’s medical records.

To quickly dismiss one objection: no, Schefter did not break the law.  He did not violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) by showing it.  The medical professional who leaked the info to Schefter did.

Schefter is not in legal hot water for disclosing information, even if someone else obtained illegally.  The Supreme Court decided that in Bartnicki v. Vopper, where a radio station played illegally wiretapped conversation between teachers union officials during tense negotiations in Wilkes Barre, Pa.

The court found “a stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern.”  Schefter operates under the same shield.

That might sound like the equivalent of accepting stolen property and getting away with it, but the Supreme Court treats news-related information differently.

But law does not equal ethics.  The question is, did Schefter violate journalistic ethics here?  As with many such questions, the answer is determined by where you stand on ethics.  There is, however, another issue here, a constant with ESPN: ethical transparency.

Many argue that Schefter should have declined to show Pierre-Paul’s medical records and merely reported the information, anonymously sourced.  Showing an individual’s private medical information crossed a line, to them.

What is troubling to me — and always has troubled me — is that ESPN ignored its commitment, as a news media organization, to be transparent about this ethical decision.  I watched Schefter’s live report on ESPN SportsCenter.  It was all news, zero reflection.

In its September 2014 revision to its code of ethics, less than a year ago, the Society of Professional Journalists added the words “and transparent” to its fourth major standard, “be accountable.”

The resulting exhortation, “Be Accountable and Transparent,” includes the following sentences of explanation and application: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. … Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

As I write this blog, ESPN has not done this and certainly did not choose to do this early in its reporting.  It could have been handled so simply — with two or three sentences of explanation by Schefter.  But for whatever reason, Schefter and his producers decided not to take the time, even with the existence of ethical disagreement within the profession and the audience.

I wrote about this in al.com a couple of years ago — regarding Joe Schad’s reporting of alleged autograph selling by Johnny Manziel.  It is sad to see that apparently nothing has changed.

Don’t expect to hear from ESPN on this through its ombudsman blog.  The network has not updated the blog since Dec. 3, 2014, when Robert Lipsyte ended an excellent stint.  It is a sad, and telling, omission.

So where does it go from here? Nowhere?  Maybe not.

I see another layer to this debate, and it relates to Schefter’s relationship with his anonymous sources within the league.  Note the following tweet by former Steeler James Harrison:

Apologies for Harrison’s language, but it does raise the question: How will Schefter’s sources within the league respond to this?  One reason a journalist never breaks a pledge to an anonymous source, even risking imprisonment, is because of the damage it would cause to other source relationships, and these are an investigative journalist’s lifeblood.

It will be interesting to see if Schefter gets any pushback from his sources — players, agents or team officials — because of this.  Players might punish him for damaging an unsigned colleague’s negotiating power.  Agents and team officials might be more likely to look the other way.

All of these considerations weigh in to a serious ethical discussion in a matter like this.  And as the SPJ code encourages, and ESPN once again ignored, it’s best to include your audience in that ethical discussion.

John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University.  A former sports journalist himself, he discusses sports media issues at @John_P_Carvalho.

 

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