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Ethics question: Did WSTM properly handle disclosing Springfield’s past employment?

Ethics question: Did WSTM properly handle disclosing Springfield’s past employment?

SYRACUSE — The big story for Syracuse news outlets on Tuesday was the arraignment of Roger Springfield.  While working as media director for Syracuse University athletics, Springfield is accused of secretly videotaping male student athletes in the locker room after a number of games.  Before working at SU, Springfield was sports director at WSTM-TV from 1982 to 1993.  But, some viewers noticed, WSTM’s newscasts didn’t mention Springfield’s former employment at the station.  Was that a big deal?  We asked a nationally-recognized expert to weigh in.

The general consensus from those we heard from, was that it seemed “odd” or “curious” that WSTM made no mention of Springfield’s time at the station, nor was any file video from the 80s or 90s used.  One reader suggested the NBC affiliate crossed an ethical line by choosing not to make an on-air disclosure.

Not having been near a TV at the time, your editor can’t verify or dispute what aired at 5:00pm.  However, it may be worth noting a story posted on Tuesday morning on WSTM’s website, CNYCentral.com, did mention, in the second-to-last paragraph, the fact Springfield worked there.  But, during 3½ minutes of coverage on WSTM’s 11pm newscast on Tuesday, we did notice no mention of the fact Springfield used to work there.

So, we wondered: was it a big deal?  Should WSTM have mentioned Springfield’s history with the station on-air, or was the website enough?

We contacted Rae Fulkerson, CNYCentral Vice President of News, to ask if she’d be willing to explain the decision, and to perhaps share some insight on the editorial process that takes place when newsrooms face such unique decisions.  She did not respond.

We also contacted Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists.  He said this is “a great question,” but suggested, “the key isn’t whether there is an attempt to withhold or hide information, but rather a fair question as to how long does one have to bear an association with the person.”

Smith explained, “I’m not confident it approaches unethical behavior to accept [or not accept] association with someone who hasn’t been at your station for more than 10 years.”  In Springfield’s case, it’s been nearly 20 years since he last worked for WSTM.  “The fact that it’s referred to on the website seems to me to be sufficient,” Smith added.

To further illustrate his point, Smith suggests how a similar situation might be handled in some different settings: “Should the pastor of his church feel obligated to tell the congregation that one of their former members of more than a decade ago, was arrested?  …  Should his college alumni association step up and have a press conference, admitting he went to school there?”

In summary, because it’s been so long since Springfield worked at WSTM, Smith said, “I don’t think it’s critical” to make mentions on-air.

What do you think?

Do you agree with Smith’s reasoning, or with the readers who thought there should have been an on-air disclosure?
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