Media Wants It Both Ways in U of M Coverage

KSTP-TV’s investigative unit got a scoop recently in reporting on accusations of sexual harassment involving a University of Minnesota athletics department fundraiser. That’s what journalists do, work sources, obtain confidential documents, get it online and on the air before the competition. Kudos to KSTP-TV, where I covered a beat and ran a documentary unit earlier in my career.Thumb

The U of M released the redacted report yesterday in announcing Randy Handel’s suspension and demotion. Meantime, more than 260 members of the Twin Cities media have signed a petition demanding the U of M drop an internal investigation into who leaked the confidential personnel file and play by their rules.

A delegation from the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild delivered the petitions to the University’s Board of Regents on Wednesday. “We believe that this investigation of leaks by the University is a direct attack on the First Amendment,” the group said in a statement. The petition was signed by some journalists from the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and several local TV news organizations, among others.

The media claims the university’s action threatens freedom of the press. But the Board of Regents made it clear the U does not intend to challenge how KSTP did its job. At the same time, the regents have their own job to do.

“The Board fully appreciates the First Amendment reasons why the media wishes to protect its sources, and has no intention of challenging its journalistic choice,” said a statement released Wednesday by Board Chairman Dean Johnson and Vice Chairman David McMillan. “Those principles, however, do not excuse or give license to University officials to breach their legal duties by disclosing matters to the media that the law directs should be kept private while decisions are pending.”

The U of M administration has initiated an unusual internal investigation that started with holding the regents accountable.

All 12 regents, and the staff, last week were asked to sign affidavits saying they didn’t leak the document. Since leaks from public officials are common in daily journalism, a forensic investigation was considered extremely unusual for a governmental body, especially at the state level, and some said it left the impression that the regents worried more about the leak than the issue of sexual harassment.

There’ll always be tension between the press and government institutions. But the media’s grandstanding will do little to build public support for its mission. The Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ overblown rhetoric may only widen the media’s credibility gap with an increasingly skeptical audience.

“Minnesota law protects the rights of journalists to keep their sources confidential as part of the Free Flow of Information Act. The university’s investigation to seek the identity of the confidential source goes against the spirit of the Free Flow of Information Act and will have a chilling effect on those whistleblowers who seek to expose wrongdoing and those journalists who report it.”

The leaking of a highly sensitive confidential document possibly by a high level university official also raises important public policy questions. Sorry, but that’s a story, too.