Astros sign scandal steals reputations

By · Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

not teaching,
still THINKING …

“At the end of the day, all we have in this game is our reputation.”

So said a baseball executive to ESPN in the wake of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal, thus stating the obvious when it comes to ethics. 

Why do people cheat or stretch the rules or otherwise risk their good names? The reasons are legion. On a bad day, they are just bad people doing bad things. On better days, they are good people who get reckless. And, on better days still, they are good people who just don’t take time to think, under pressure of all kinds: pressure of the clock, pressure of profit, pressure of competition. Or maybe they act out of fear of the boss, or of their peers, or maybe it’s the pressure they put on themselves. 

In the case of the Astros, it appears the entire team was party to a system where the video feed from the centerfield camera at their home park was relayed to players in the dugout, and then from them to hitters at the plate. Hitters knew what the pitcher was throwing, an immense advantage. It helped the Astros win the 2017 World Series and make it to the Series again in 2019, where they lost to the Washington Nationals. 

Well, the Astros were finally caught when a former player exposed the scheme, and the manager and general manager have been fired, as well as the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets managers, who had been with the Astros. No players were disciplined, though all (most likely) were complicit. You can’t fire all the players, so leadership took the hit. The analog in journalism: Top editors get fired when reporters and lower-level management cheat, or tacitly allow it. It has been distressing to hear and see some players either shrug this off (Jose Altuve) or simply refuse to talk about it (Alex Bregman), much less take responsibility.

It is easy to preach that this case is an example every profession should pay attention to and learn from. Easy because, indeed, that is what we should do. 

These kinds of disasters — whether in baseball, journalism or especially right now, politics — should remind journalists of the immense responsibility they have, and inspire them to reflect on how to work ethically and how to put that ethos to work every day. 

To that end, here are 10 examples from our book of the range of ethical issues the journalist is likely to encounter and that should be considered warning signs:

  1. Source questions of all kinds. Should a source be given anonymity? On what grounds? (See the plagiarism and fabrication strategies in Part III of Think Like an Editor.) Should a source be “protected” in some cases, such as a whistleblower who fears losing a job, or victims of certain crimes who would be embarrassed or even possibly endangered by having their names published? 
  2. Issues of all kinds involving interviewing or identifying children, teens or young adults, including juvenile delinquents.
  3. Stories involving sources who are naïve, who may not understand or appreciate the consequences of talking to the press. Should you identify illegal immigrants who talk to you openly and for the record, failing to realize they could be easily tracked down and deported by authorities if they are quoted and named? Or, an uneducated person who may not realize the consequences of admitting to an illegal or questionable act?
  4. Deceptions of various kinds, even those that serve readers’ interests. A reporter poses as a customer with car trouble in order to catch a shady mechanic. Is this a last resort to getting a story? Never a resort?
  5. Anything that might be considered a “quid pro quo.” That is, doing something — or not doing something — in exchange for something else. (For example, not running a story or “burying” it in order to keep an advertiser’s dollars flowing or a favored source talking.) Participating in any kind of questionable tradeoff. Trading information with a source.
  6. Anything that would seem at odds with the value that says the readers’ interests should be pre-eminent. 
  7. Exceptions. Whenever you make an exception to what you do you are probably getting into ethical territory. By their nature, exceptions call into question why you are not following standard practice, what your motives are, and what you might be getting out of it. 
  8. Anything that seems to favor people who have power over people who don’t. 
  9. Anything that alters reality in any way. Airbrushing a picture to add to it, subtract from it or change it. Leaving something out of a story. Coaching someone on what to say or do for a story or picture.
  10. Acquiring privileged or private information through any means, from peaking at papers left on someone’s desk, to listening in on conversations through paper-thin walls, to accepting grand jury testimony.   

At the end of the day, all we have is our reputation. Unless we give it away. And with it, our present and our futures and our careers, as well as those — quite possibly — of others.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)

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