Examining privacy in a see-all, tell-all media environment

I received an intense outpouring of mail last month from viewers upset by reporting that seemed to violate the privacy of Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young.

The mail came from fans long used to the sports media's Dumpster-diving into pregame and postgame interviews for juicy bits of trash talk; from fans who no longer blink twice when players' private e-mails to friends or text messages to their wives become part of the news food chain; from fans who understand that part of an athlete's job description in an age of ubiquitous cell phone cameras is to learn how to live and play in a fishbowl world.

But even fans accustomed to this see-all, tell-all media environment were shocked by the Sept. 12 headline on ESPN.com that read, "Fisher reached out to police because therapist said Young mentioned suicide." The headline and story were based on a police report filed the previous Tuesday, the morning after Titans' coach Jeff Fisher called the Nashville police to ask for help finding Young, whose whereabouts were unknown to his family and the team for several hours.

Although the police report was later found to be seriously misleading, there was a 36-hour period when viewers and readers, taking the story at face value, flooded my mailbox with serious questions about the journalistic ethics of publishing information from a therapist about a person's mental state. The fact that the police report had been obtained first by the Nashville City Paper and its contents sent to news outlets around the country by the AP wire service before it ran on ESPN.com was irrelevant to those who wrote me. They saw the story on ESPN, and that was what mattered.

"I realize this is legal and that plenty of publications do this type of stuff all the time, but I expected ESPN to be better than this," wrote a fan from Palo Alto, Calif.

"I cannot believe that ESPN had the coldness to publish the article about Vince Young's mentioning suicide to a therapist," wrote a fan from Cincinnati. "I am very disappointed in the editors for such a breach of Vince's privacy."

"The piece about Vince Young speaking to his therapist about suicide may be considered news," wrote an ESPN.com reader from Richmond, Va., "but it's irresponsible journalism to expose sensitive information at a time when it could truly impact a young man's personal life and/or career."

"ESPN has it all wrong concerning Vince Young," wrote a viewer from Sharon, Pa. "You ought to be asking why a therapist is releasing confidential client information. Why is ESPN hounding Vince Young at least five times an hour and forcing him and his family into deeper public embarrassment instead of helping him?"

A question that should have been asked

That last viewer was dead-on about the need to ask why a therapist would release details of a client session to the police, or to a coach for that matter. The answer, provided Sept. 13 by Fisher in an interview with ESPN's Chris Mortensen, was that Young had not confided suicidal thoughts to a personal therapist, as most news outlets inferred from the police report's imprecise wording. According to Fisher, it was Mike Mu, Young's local marketing manager, who called the team therapist to say Young had talked about suicide before leaving home without saying where he was going and without taking his cell phone.

The team therapist called the coach to relay this information, and the coach -- unwilling to take the chance of discounting the information -- called the police, triggering an official report based on what was essentially a confused game of telephone tag. When Young, who apparently spent the evening at a friend's home watching "Monday Night Football," was located, therapist, coach and police all determined he posed no danger to himself or others.

Case closed -- until the police report was obtained later that same week (through a request under Tennessee's Public Records Law) and over-interpreted by the media, leaving many fans feeling that Young's privacy had been violated in a grievous way.

Deleting news

The basic question posed by those who wrote me, as phrased by an ESPN.com reader from California, was "Shouldn't this information be kept out of the news?" It is a question that exposes a fundamental divide between journalists, myself included, and a large portion of their audience.

I felt the same repugnance at seeing that headline that many viewers did, but setting aside the accuracy issues for a moment, my answer is that ESPN could not and should not have kept that information out of the news.

Once ESPN received the AP story based on a legally obtained public record, it had an obligation to assess the information as best it could and present it responsibly to its audience. The question was not one of whether to publish the information but of how to present the information in a way that neither exploited nor inflamed what might be a sensitive, evolving situation.

Putting news on pause

"I think it is our responsibility journalistically to report what we know," said Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor/producer of ESPN.com. "This was a very visible athlete on a very visible team in a very visible situation. And by the time the police report came out, there were a couple things on everybody's mind. First, this story had been brewing for three or four days, from the time of Young's emotional reaction to being booed by fans during the previous Sunday's game, and even all the way back to the offseason, when he talked about maybe wanting to retire.

"The other thing that crossed my mind when the police report mentioned concerns about his being suicidal was the Terrell Owens situation from a couple years ago," Stiegman said, "and all of us here remember how that turned out."

With that massively covered false alarm of a story in mind, Stiegman said, "I told my news team, 'I don't know if Vince Young was suicidal. I know we have a report saying he was.' And we sent a note to all of our NFL bloggers saying, 'Let's be careful and not jump to conclusions.' "

Neither ESPN.com nor ESPN-TV rushed the story out.

"Before we posted the story," Stiegman said, "there was a lot of internal discussion, with ESPN.com news editors, with TV news editors, a cross-format collaborative discussion, and our collective response was, 'Let's be as accurate as we can be, let's be measured in our coverage, let's be absolutely non-judgmental and let's minimize opinion about this because it can quickly fall into armchair psychologizing, and that is not a role we want to be in.'"

"When we became aware of the AP story about 6 p.m. that Friday," said Vince Doria, ESPN senior VP and director of news, "we didn't report it until we were able to obtain a copy of the report from the Nashville police and confirm what was in the report. We also called the Titans for response. They had no comment. At that point, we did report the story.

"Maybe," Doria said, "we could have questioned the police report's version of events, including the likelihood of a personal therapist making these statements. But typically, with an official document in hand, we have reported what's in the document, attributing what was written to the document. And we were careful in reporting the story to note the attribution, not simply stating its assertions as fact. Eventually, Fisher spoke to Mortensen, clarifying, according to him, what happened.

"If people feel we were insensitive in reporting what was in the police report," Doria added, "I understand their personal feelings. As it happens, journalism often is in conflict with individual sensitivities."

That conflict was inevitable as soon as the word "suicidal" became part of the developing story about Young's despondent reactions to fan disapproval. From that point forward, extreme caution was required of anything written or said about Young. Whether accurately or inaccurately applied, public labeling as "suicidal" has the potential to damage a man's life or career.

ESPN exercised caution by keeping the story out of the opinion mill, by persisting in its efforts to corroborate the police report until it got the clarifications from Fisher that defused the story, and by not succumbing to the temptations of overkill that filled the "Owens Overdose" archive two years ago.

A question that should not have been asked

I think an even more minimalist approach was called for. Given the questionable accuracy of police reports, one risks making their errors one's own by even the simplest characterization or paraphrase of their contents. The wiser course is simply to quote from the report, and add, "We have not been able to corroborate the details of this report."

ESPN could have asked its anchors to refrain not only from soliciting opinion on Young's psyche but also from soliciting opinion on any aspect of the uncorroborated police report. I cringed hearing an anchor say, "Everybody's first concern should be about Vince Young the human being, but from a football standpoint, how damaging is this story going to be to Young?"

When there is no graceful way to ask a question, it's a sign that question should not be asked, especially if the mere posing of the question implicitly lends credence to an uncorroborated story about someone's being suicidal.

I also think ESPN should consider keeping certain uncorroborated content out of crawls at the bottom of the screen. To a great extent, the efforts to be accurate and measured in coverage of this story were undermined by the frequent repetition of the crawl, "Police Report: Vince Young mentioned suicide to therapist." Producers and editors routinely say that attributing information is not the same as vouching for its accuracy, but I think that is a distinction lost on many viewers when provocative information is reduced to a crawl.

These last two suggestions will ring as heresy to purveyors of 24/7 news, but I think the viewers who wrote me raised an alarm that rings louder. Even those who believe we are living in a post-privacy age were stunned by the idea of a man's most closely held thoughts becoming news.

Fine points from fans

On several matters last month, the people who wrote me expressed their thoughts and mine better than I could.

• A viewer from Tulsa: "With the new NFL season, one thing has really bothered me about ESPN's coverage: fantasy projection crawls running through a variety of programs. I first noticed it on the pregame shows Sunday morning, but it is also in legitimate sports news programs like SportsCenter on Mondays. In exactly the same way that the network posts the actual results of real games, they now post imaginary stats. I love fantasy sports, but treating projected stats as if they were legitimate information is just wrong. Even with the word 'Projected' in front of each line."

• A viewer from Salt Lake City: "One thing that I find maddening is the constant presentation of Monday Night 'records.' Most touchdown passes ON MONDAY NIGHT, most yards on punt returns ON MONDAY NIGHT, longest fumble return not for a touchdown ON MONDAY NIGHT... These 'records' are not records!! They mean no more than 'Interceptions by a team wearing blue uniforms in a playoff game' or 'Most punt return yards by a visiting team in a game in the Eastern time zone' would be. NO. ONE. CARES. So please stop it, okay? Thanks."

• A reader from Helena, Mont.: "I don't know what to make of Bill Simmons' 9,000-word essay/rant on Manny Ramirez. It's not the story that I'm confused about -- vintage rambling Sports Guy, which I love. But why on earth is this listed under an 'Outside the Lines' heading? I read somewhere that the E-ticket switch was about branding long-form, investigative, news-y online reporting under the appropriate 'Outside the Lines' brand. That makes sense. But Simmons' opinion-based, second-hand social anecdote-filled, humor column? That just seems an odd fit. I don't blame Simmons. But what are the editors at ESPN.com thinking? What does this mean for readers about the 'Outside the Lines' brand? I'm left to think that banner now simply means 'a really long story that we felt had to be cross-promoted with another ESPN entity.'"

• Finally, a viewer from Castle Rock, Colo., speaking for himself, me and many others: "I am sick and tired of ESPN's obsession with Brett Favre!"