Monday, March 2, 2009

Any ethics issues here?

Saturday morning's Herald Journal, lead story on the Bridgerland (local) page 3:

USU names lewdness suspect

By Matthew K. Jensen and Kim Burgess

Published: Saturday, February 28, 2009 11:41 PM CST

The Utah State University police department on Friday released the name of the professor who was issued a citation for misdemeanor lewdness following an investigation of a sexual act in a school steam room.

Tom C. Peterson, a faculty member in Agriculture Systems Technology Education and the former head of the Interior Design program, is listed as one of the people involved in the incident. The Herald Journal received the information Friday afternoon by filing a Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) request with the school. Police had earlier declined to release Peterson’s name, citing direction from the university’s legal counsel.

Police officials are still searching for a second man suspected in the case, which began at 6 p.m. Tuesday evening when a patron of the school’s Health, Physical Education and Recreation facility walked into the building’s steam room and allegedly saw two people engaged in a sexual act.

The witness reported the incident to HPER staff, who called police. They issued a citation of class-B misdemeanor lewdness to Peterson on Wednesday after interviewing him. The witness also spoke to police, telling them he believed Peterson was one of the men in the steam room.

According to police documents, Peterson is scheduled to appear before a judge Tuesday.

Law enforcement declined to give further description of the alleged lewd act, saying the investigation is ongoing.

The professor did not return calls made by The Herald Journal on Friday. Later, USU spokesperson John DeVilbiss said Peterson did not wish to comment about the case.

“We are saddened and concerned by what has been alleged,” DeVilbiss said.

He added that the university is “not at a stage to take any disciplinary action” toward Peterson, adding that administrators will “allow for due process and let this work through the judicial system before we initiate any procedures.”

Peterson is a long-standing USU faculty member who became an assistant professor in design and merchandising in 1976. Registration records show that this semester he is teaching a creative arts class with 419 students enrolled.


  1. First thing that came to my mind- he has only been cited and not convicted. Constitutionally, I thought you were innocent until proven guilty. To me, printing his name and alleging his involvement paints his guilt.

  2. Nancy asked me, as the city editor at the HJ, to share how we as a newspaper decided to run the Peterson story. There are a few reasons, but I'll try to be somewhat short. :)

    Briefly, he's one of the highest paid and most recognizable individual at the valley's largest employer accused of breaking a law in a very public place. Now, for the long story:

    Ultimately, we printed the story and named Peterson because of WHERE the alleged crime took place, WHO he is and, if it's all true, the fact that there looks to be a trend going on in that steam room. Tom Peterson is a longtime USU employee recognizable by thousands of people (because of his creative arts class); he is paid ($150,000!) in public — i.e. taxpayer — dollars. The HPER pool is frequently used by children and teenagers, in addition to students, staff and faculty. Had the alleged incident taken place off university grounds, I highly doubt we would have covered it.

    About the gay thing: If a professor was accused of doing/participating in/whatever a sexual act with anybody — same or different gender — in a public place on campus, I think we'd cover it.

    The third issue is the trend idea. This will probably be what becomes the bigger story later on. Worst case scenario: The USU steam room has been the meet-up place with sexual activity for years. Best case scenario: This was an isolated incident — if it's true — and the Craig's List ads were just coincidental. No matter what, it deserves to be investigated.

    And in response to Katie April: You are innocent until proven guilty. But can you imagine a world where people weren't named when they were arrested or charged? A world where we didn't know O.J. Simpson was accused of murder until AFTER the trial? (That's extreme, I know, but still...) It's probably not realistic.

  3. Emilie, thanks for taking time to trace the HJ's decision process for us. It's important.

    I have a problem with what looks like gross unfairness to someone and justifying the unusual coverage because he happens to be a USU professor. And what does his salary have to do with this decision, anyway?

    A couple of questions:

    1 - Does the Herald Journal have a policy about what kinds of crime stories are covered?

    2 - Is it normal policy for the paper to cover arrests for Class B misdemeanors?

    Thanks, again, for your willingness to help us sort out the issues here.

  4. Pardon me for this entirely unsolicited comment, but I'm bored at 4:22 a.m. so I'm going to chime in.

    Crime reporting is a tough business, certainly one that comes with frequent criticism. You can't win for trying, so to speak.

    What we have here is an event that meets not one, not two, but several of the criteria that we use in journalism to evaluate the newsworthiness of a story. Impact, timeliness, prominence, proximity, the bizarre, conflict and human interest are all satiated by this story. Moreover, the fact that people are talking about it all over town validates the publication and naming of Tom C. Peterson.

    Sometimes the people accused, by virtue of their position in life, can't help but be thrust into the forefront of the public zeitgeist. Let's assume for a minute that Joe Johnson is a grocery bagger at Smith's and he gets cited for a lewd act with another man in the HPER steam room. No one really knows Joe Johnson, he's not really accountable to the public in any way and he's just a typical private resident. Joe Johnson's citation becomes little more than a police blotter type item, at best, if reported at all.

    Now, as Emilie has said, you have a guy who thousands of people know (because they've taken classes from him), who has an upstanding reputation in the community, and who does get paid a lot of public dollars. I will dismiss his pay as relevant and say that the mere fact that he taught thousands of individuals over the years in Cache Valley makes this a newsworthy story. Part of the media's job is to deliver its customers information that they will be interested in (not just what they want to hear) and chances are that hundreds of Tom Peterson's former students read this story and had an "Oh My God" moment. Bingo. The Herald Journal did it's job well.

    Now the argument can be made that if Tom Peterson (or anyone in a similar case) is innocent, irreparable damage is done to their reputation by media coverage prior to a trial. While this is true, I for one believe there's a huge public interest served in pre-trial publicity. What if there happened to be other incidents in the HPER steam room? This news article may flush out additional reports of lewdness that otherwise wouldn't have been reported. This aspect of pre-trial publicity is even more relevant and crucial in cases of sex abuse when publicity about an accused individual may lead to more victims reporting their stories.

    In the event that an individual, in this case Peterson, is found innocent of the charges, then the media absolutely has a responsibility to clean up their mess and give the highest level of prominence to the vindication of the accused. But I'm here to tell you that 99 times out of 100, the accusations are correct, for better or for worse.

    Finally, and this is where an unrepairable chasm is found between media types of media critics, the media's job is to report what is happening in the community, not waiting until what's happening is finished to report. For every critic there is out there that The Herald Journal named Tom Peterson in this case, there'd have been five more criticizing the paper for not naming him if they didn't.

  5. Nancy,

    Great discussion. I stumbled on it through Glen Warchol's Salt Lake City Crawler at the Tribune.

    You asked Emilie the following question, "Is it normal policy for the paper to cover arrests for Class B misdemeanors?"

    My question to you is, is that a reasonable criteria for a newspaper to adopt in its policies?

    Such a policy certainly does not capture the very relevant factors that Emilie has listed including the public nature of the location, the position of trust Peterson is in and that Peterson is a public figure.

    If a Cache Valley Mayor were cited for a Class B misdemeanor I would expect the Herald Journal to report on it. A policy about crime reporting delineated on the type of charge but that excludes other factors such as being a public figure or in a position of trust would inhibit the duty the Herald Journal has to the community.

    Now that the Herald Journal has reported on the story, it has an ethical duty to tell the story to its end whether that be conviction or exoneration. However, I am glad the Herald Journal reports on stories like these. The community has a right to know about these types of stories. Further, these kinds of stories serve as an important part of the deterrant component of our criminal code.

  6. Ms. Williams:

    Below is an excerpt of an e-mail I sent USU professor Edward Pease. You may share it with your class or on the ethics blog.

    "Professor Peterson is not a page 1 story in Salt Lake City. But before I began work here, I worked at the daily newspaper in Columbia, Mo., a college town much like Logan. Professor Peterson and to totality of his circumstances would have been a front-page story there, too.

    "The totality is just too sensational: A veteran professor and administrator that everyone on campus knows; a sex act in a steam room; the Craigslist ads. I suspect lots of people on campus were already talking about this. The news coverage might have helped control the rumors and prevent future misconduct in the steam room.

    "Which individual are you concerned about harming? Professor Peterson or his family? You can make an argument for his family, since everyone on campus knows them, too. While remembering Professor Peterson has not been convicted of anything yet, I find it difficult to worry about his harm."

    Nate Carlisle, Salt Lake Tribune

  7. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to speak with Emilie on Tuesday. This story had ethics written all over it, and it was interested to hear what goes on behind the newsroom in those types of ethical circumstances. The bottom line is there wasn’t an easy call. Some decisions were poorly made, Emilie made clear, because the bigger picture of the story was not or is not known. Journalists and editors have to live with the mistakes they make and they learn from it, which I think is the hardest part. So unfortunate that someone can turn out innocent but their reputation is tarnished forever, but I do believe journalists have the obligation to report such incidents.

    Nate from the Salt Lake Tribune brought up an excellent point. What if the Herald Journal hadn’t written a story, and rumors had spread throughout campus? I think that may have been worse for both Peterson and his family.

    What I learned on Tuesday: journalists do not ever leave work. They have to constantly stress and think about their job and the ethical situations that surround it.