Lots of talk in media circles about the Foley scandal. I was an Ethics Fellow at the Poynter Insitute a few years back -- we maintain a listserv which fires up during these types of situations. Here is a post I made in response to journalist who didn't buy the explanation by the St. Pete Times regarding why it didn't publish a story on the matter some time back.
I'm trying to understand the "blew it" position. Having trouble.
As I understand it, here are the facts the Times and Co. had in front of them:
A U.S. Congressmen sent e-mails to a page.
They were friendly and, for the most part, harmless (Katrina, etc.) The most incriminating part of the e-mails was when the congressmen requested a "pic."
There was nothing sexual in the e-mails obtained by the Times.
The page questioned whether the e-mails were "out of bounds," asking a staffer in another congressman's office.
The page, when interviewed, said the request for a picture made him "uncomfortable."
The family did not want the page named
Later, the family said, through a different congressman, they did not want to pursue a story.
Not only did the paper not find a pattern, but the only other page it could find did not have a similar experience.
The congressman in question denied anything untoward.
If I were the editor, relying on these facts, it would have been an easy call: No publication.
As Poynter has taught us so many times, it's about balancing benefit and harm. There was only a whiff of evidence that something improper was going on here. Yet, publication of a story would have immediately painted the congressman as a pervert, no matter how carefully and discreetly the story was reported. To me, it's way too easy to draw a line back from the final outcome and claim the story should have been published. Maybe I'm missing some evidence that the papers had, but based on what I've read, it fell way short of publishable material.