Ethical considerations for journalists covering athletes accused of serious crimes

John C. Watson is an associate professor tenured in the Journalism Division at American University. (Photo courtesy of American University)

Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson recently signed the largest contract extension in NFL history — a noteworthy headline of its own. But journalists covering star athletes like Watson, who also has been accused of sexual misconduct by 22 women, face ethical dilemmas when deciding when and how much of those criminal allegations to include in their coverage. 

The National Press Club Journalism Institute interviewed John Watson, a tenured journalism associate professor and media ethics expert at American University, via email for advice about what sports journalists ought to consider while covering athletes accused of serious crimes. A journalist for 21 years, Watson has law and doctoral degrees. Watson’s research on media law and journalism ethics has been published in law reviews and refereed scholarly journals, and he wrote the book “Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.”

John Watson and Deshaun Watson are not related.

Do you think it is ethical and/or possible to separate the accomplishments of an athlete on the field from their behavior off the field?

Watson: I have to start with the assumption that people who cover sports are journalists and not merely providers of entertainment content. Therefore, it is unethical if not impossible for a conscientious journalist to separate or exclude relevant information from a news report or news feature. Off-the-field behavior is often relevant because of the all-purpose roles sports have assumed in American culture and society.

In the case of an athlete like Deshaun Watson, how do you cover his athletic performance while also acknowledging the very serious harm and sexual misconduct he is accused of committing?

Watson: Because sexual misconduct by people in positions of wealth and power has been recognized as a longstanding and pervasive problem, journalists should now bear the burden of proving why at least a mention of the misconduct is not included in every report on Deshaun Watson. 

If you are biased or do feel personally impacted by the conduct someone like Watson is accused of committing, how could that affect your reporting of the player/team? What do you do if you feel you cannot report on his play on the field without letting the way you feel about his alleged misconduct off the field get in the way?

Watson: As a general rule, any journalist who feels “personally impacted” by a news subject should have a conversation with at least one other ethics-guided journalist (note that all editors and producers do not fit in this category) to consider handing off the reporting to another journalist.

Bias is a slippery concept. All humans have biases. Often, it’s because we have moral values. Anyone who does not have a bias against people who engage in sexual misconduct, or any other horrendous behavior, should not be a journalist. That type of moral bias is essential to making news judgments; it makes it possible for journalists to say, “This is important and we need to inform the public about this.”

If a morality-based bias is so strong that a journalist’s professional training will not prevent it from tainting their reporting, they must recuse themselves from reporting on that issue.

If a morality-based bias is so strong that journalists fail to clearly identify and explain the massive difference between accused of misconduct and actually engaging in that conduct, those journalists must recuse themselves from reporting on that issue or seek more ethics-guided editorial oversight of their work.

Stories like Deshaun Watson’s have been common in professional sports leagues for a long time. Whether it’s Karl Malone or Ben Roethlisberger or Aroldis Chapman, allegations of violence against women by professional male athletes is an issue that unfortunately is not going away. And some even believe that over time, the media stops talking about their alleged behavior off the field and instead heralds them for their accomplishments on the field. Is there a shift or change newsrooms need to make to stop this “whitewashing” from happening?

Watson: Historically, journalists have failed miserably at holding athletes responsible for little beyond their box scores. But substantial progress is currently underway. It is likely, however, there will be backsliding unless journalists hold each other accountable and shout loudly each time someone takes a step backward whether by negligence or as a marketing strategy.

Can sports journalism exist in a vacuum of sports? What are the potential implications of such thinking and actual practice?

Watson: Sports writing can exist and probably thrive in such a vacuum. No reputable journalism of any type can exist in a vacuum. Journalism must be ready to cover the entire human experience. Journalism is fundamentally based in public service. Any limitation on that whittles away the profession’s primary mission.

What advice would you give to beat reporters covering the Cleveland Browns or a team in a similar predicament to the Browns’ with Deshaun Watson?

Watson: Decide from the outset if you are a journalist. Act accordingly. Snitch on those who would advise you otherwise.

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

Watson: This is one among many cases in which journalists have to accept the reality that objectivity is not the absence of bias; it is embracing and applying the proper bias.

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