McGuire on Media

Exploring harm and why do some stories never get any lift?

In this afternoon’s Sports Media class we’re exploring harm.  One of several cases I chose for discussion was a Yahoo sports story from December 18 concerning a Big Ten referee.

The reporter, Josh Peter, detailed a series of accusations about the referee, Stephen Pamon, who led the crew that officiated the controversial Illinois victory over Ohio State and a game involving Purdue that drew a one-week suspension for the crew.  Peter showed that in addition to violence and harassment difficulties the referee filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and two of his creditors were casinos.

The harm analysis is quite simple.  It is loosely based on a process found in a twenty-year-old book, “The Virtuous Journalist” by Klaidman and Beauchamp. This is how I led the discussion with the class:

Let’s explore our questions:

1. An established duty to the affected party must exist. To whom are duties owed here and who got harmed? Pamon, his wife, his officiating crew, all football officials, all officials

2. Someone must breach that duty. He is definitely harmed by the story in a big way and so are all the other stakeholders.

3.The affected party must experience a harm. Is an interest defeated or thwarted? You bet it is. He may never be allowed to officiate again.

4. The harm must be caused by the breach of duty? The harm is done merely by printing the story. Are there any problems with the story? Does the age of the transgressions bother you? What put those facts into play? Of course, it was Joe Tiller’s complaint and then the questionable calls in a national championship game.

5. Was the harm done in the service of a greater good? Is that public greater good more important than the harm done to Pamon, his family and any other stakeholder? The harm is definitely done in the service of a great good. What is that good? Accountability, better rules, making sure the game is protected from potential scandal.

6. Finally was Pamon’s reputation a right that deserved to be respected? His bad acts make it more important to educate the public about a possible taint of the game than to respect any harm that might be done to him. Arguably all his actions, which are public record, are the cause of the harm.

Finally, a crucial question is who would have gotten harmed if you didn’t print? My answer is fans, other teams, and the Big Ten because people with a taint like this could continue to referee. But that begs a fascinating question. Why has this story gotten so little lift?

I heard Colin Cowherd praise the story on ESPN radio one day, but there has been precious little other coverage.  Googling the story does not show that is got a lot of attention.  I have been in journalism for almost 40 years and I still can’t figure out why some stories soar and others go kerplop.

This one sure looked to me like one that should have soared.