Now, here is an interesting ethical dilemma.
Last Friday morning, the New Haven Independent posted its final revision of a story reporting that the city’s police union had approved a “no confidence” vote in Chief Frank Limon by a margin of 246-21.
The New Haven Police Department has been beset by controversy since Limon’s arrival last spring over accusations of police brutality and over incidents involving officers’ confiscating cameras from people trying to record their actions. Last week, a group of African-American activists demonstrated in favor of Limon, claiming that the chief is working to reform a troubled department.
But I digress. The story closes with a quote from and a photo of a custodian who works at police headquarters. The custodian, Michele Kearney, says:
There’s been a lot of tension ever since he’s [Limon] been here. There is not a lot of morale here. The last chief [James Lewis] was more understanding of what needs to be done. From what I have seen he wanted to hear their opinions and try to work with them. This one here [Limon] seems like he is working against them and not with them.
The story drew 108 comments — a very high number for the Independent. On Thursday at 3:23 p.m. (in response to an earlier version of the story) a commenter who goes by “da hill” criticized the Independent for quoting “unrelated entities” such as Kearney. Editor and publisher Paul Bass responded:
Thanks for the input. Our feeling was that someone who’s in the building cleaning the floors every day, talking to officers, and watching what’s going on, does in fact have a valid perspective to offer on morale and the overall feeling in the building.
At 5:21 p.m., “NO CONFIDENCE” wrote: “I am so happy to see a civilian like Michele, pictured above, tell the citizens of New Haven how Chief Limon treats his officers. She works in the police department and is definitely well qualified to make those statements.”
A short time later, “Our Town” posted this: “I sure hope ole Michele is in a union, becuase I have a feeling she might not have a job tomorrow for speaking up.”
Then, at 11:06 p.m., there was this, from “Ken”:
The maintenance girl was fired immediately and we heard it came from, you guessed it, the chief. This is his MO if don’t agree with or lie for him you’re in trouble. City Hall has demanded she be re-hired by O,R&L. I guess the The Chief never heard of the First Amendment. OR&L should be questioned about it and if they lie they should lose the city contracts. If it came from the Chief he should be terminated.
O,R&L is a private contractor hired by the city to maintain its buildings.
On Friday at 3:49 a.m., “unbelievable” wrote: “She was FIRED and escorted out of the building like a CRIMINAL! and you talk about wanting to do your best for this city!? … Well New Haven Independent, what are you going to do now??”
What the Independent did was post a story by Bass reporting on Kearney’s situation. The events of the day were convoluted. Kearney was fired; no, she’d been placed on leave. Mayor John DeStefano’s outgoing spokeswoman said the mayor had asked O,R&L to reinstate her. DeStefano said he’d done no such thing. The mayor’s incoming spokesman then said the company had informed the city that Kearney had been reinstated.
And, most controversially, the Independent posted the cell-phone number of the O,R&L supervisor assigned to police headquarters, urging readers to make their feelings known. “Members of the public can call him there if they want to express their opinions on the matter directly,” Bass wrote.
For Kearney, the story had a reasonably happy ending. According to the final version of Bass’ story, posted on Friday at 1:59 p.m., she was reinstated with no loss of pay. For Bass, though, the experience was not quite so happy. A sampling:
From “Unreal”: “Reported [sic] gets dissed so they retaliate by publishing a cell phone number?! Completely unprofessional. I don’t agree with the firing the employee however, I will refuse to support the Independent after that juvenile reaction!”
From “Steve B”: “Bush league. At least respectable journalistic ventures make an attempt to appear objective. Would you care to publish your personal cell phone number, Mr. Bass? You do yourself no favors with this kind of trashy behavior. It’s stuff like this that gives readers a reason not to take the NHI seriously.”
From “ricky perwood”: “so lets get this straight. NHI asked a woman who was in no way part of the story and she gave her opinion. Ok that happens, but why did they publish her quotes and her picture ? and now they publish someones cell phone number to try and get out of their major mistake ? This site and its editor have no journalistic integrity. NONE. I cant believe how vindictive whoever write this article is.”
On the other hand, “ASL” wrote: “I am not sure what the uproar is over the publication of the cell phone number. Is there some sacred right to keep your cell phone number private? I don’t take issue with privatization but if you are a private contractor paid with public dollars, you should expect to be held accountable to the public.”
Still, as Bass himself acknowledged, far more commenters thought he’d erred by publishing the number.
Here is what Bass wrote in the comments to explain why he published the supervisor’s cell-phone number:
Thank you for the feedback on the cell phone number. I knew it was an extraordinary measure. Here’s my thinking:
What the company and that manager did to Michele Kearney was so far beyond the pale of any legal or ethical or moral behavior, a lukewarm “please don’t do that again” response from the press would be pathetic.
I did not burn anyone or violate any confidential information in publishing that number. His cell phone number is widely available. That’s why I got it.
It is common practice to publish phone numbers for people to call to register dissatisfaction. Especially numbers of public entities. I think it’s a canard to pretend a company hired to do a public job is not privy to the same demands put on government. I have personally been up to the state Freedom of Information Commission to fight this question. I have never lost.
We feel very good about quoting a custodian about conditions in a public building. She has as much right to have her voice heard as does a paid corporate flack or high government official. The Independent is dedicated to letting everyone’s voice be heard.
If anybody tries to mess with people who choose to exercise that right, we will stand behind that person 1000%. You’re all on notice.
Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that Bass is wrong about Kearney’s having the “right to have her voice heard.” Although the Independent deserves praise for seeking out non-traditional sources, no one has a First Amendment right to talk about his or her employer’s clients. O,R&L’s reaction to Kearney’s comments was outrageous, and I’ve got no problem with the Independent putting heat on the company in order to reverse the injustice that had been done to her. But she did make a mistake.
On Friday, Bass and I got on Gmail chat to discuss the ethics of his decision to publish the supervisor’s cell-phone number. What I wanted to know was whether Bass had obtained the number as a reporter with the understanding — tacit or explicit — that he would use it to get a comment, not to publish it for all his readers to see.
I’m satisfied that Bass didn’t do that. He told me he called the company as though he were simply a member of the public, not a reporter, and was given the number with no restrictions. Moreover, Bass said, the cell-phone numbers of government employees are a matter of public record in Connecticut, and O,R&L is performing a government function.
“I felt he had the same role as any government supervisor — they just happen to call him a private contractor and deal with him that way to bypass the union,” Bass told me.
Emphasizing the point he’d made in the comments, he added, “What really galls me is this idea that news reporters shouldn’t quote custodians and let them speak in articles. I feel there’s an important principle at stake here about who gets to talk.”
And again, I agree — except that Kearney did not have the right to endanger her company’s relationship with the city.
So, did Bass do the ethical thing in posting the cell-phone number? I’d say yes, based mainly on the fact that he got it just as any member of the public would. If he’d identified himself and said he was a journalist when he called the company and asked for the number, he’d have a problem.
Did Bass do the smart thing? Here I have to say no. I have no problem with his decision to pressure O,R&L to reinstate Kearney. The Independent engages in advocacy journalism, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it interesting.
But Bass could have posted the company’s phone number (it’s got two offices in Connecticut) or the mayor’s number. And he probably would have accomplished just as much.
Our online chat ended with Bass telling me, “Hey, the company just called — she got her job back! They promised me on the record she faces no threat of dismissal, and she will lose no pay. I have no idea if the cell was a factor. I do think we sent a message.”
Bass had a tough call to make, and he didn’t have the luxury of thinking it over for a few days. A woman was on the verge of losing her job because she spoke to one of his reporters. I think he got it partly right and partly wrong.
Not sure how much conversation I can generate about this story, but I’d love it if this were just the beginning. I’d especially like to hear from O,R&L, the mayor’s office and any media ethicists who happen to be reading this.
Photo by Melinda Tuhus for the New Haven Independent. Republished by permission.