How Pushy Is Too Pushy?
Pompilio, Natalie, American Journalism Review
Good aggressive reporting or cold-hearted invasion privacy? Now it's up to a Florida judge to decide.
In the lawsuit Sisser vs. Unruh and Post Newsweek Stations Inc., both sides agree that WPLG-Channel 10 reporter Jilda Unruh visited the Miami hospital room of lobbyist Eric Sisser on May 8 as he awaited treatment for a heart condition. Unruh then asked Sisser about his role in a controversial land deal. An angry Sisser asked Unruh to leave his room, and a lawsuit was born.
According to media reports, Sisser alleges that Unruh sneaked into his room and harassed him with her inquiries, upsetting him so much that his blood pressure rose dangerously and he needed a nitroglycerin drip. Unruh and her television station say she was invited into Sisser's chamber after knocking. With no camera or tape recorder in hand, she asked Sisser a few questions until he asked her to go.
Sisser obtained a 30-day restraining order against Unruh and her colleagues at the Miami ABC affiliate. The full lawsuit, which claims invasion of privacy and emotional distress and seeks unspecified monetary damages, is pending.
The case prompts the question, How far should reporters go for a story?
The Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins says journalists have to ask themselves a basic question before going that extra step: "How does the truth I'm finding weigh against the harm I'm causing?" In some cases, he says, slightly out-of-bounds tactics are justified. "We do intrude, but we can justify it by the justice we seek," Tompkins says.
In a recent case, a Florida state attorney killed himself as Tampa and St. Petersburg media were uncovering the truth about his gambling habits and many personal loans (see "Feeling the Heat," December 2000). The journalists had asked for records of the man's Internet use, information he may have thought was private but had been viewed on a government owned computer. The journalists were right to press for the information, Tompkins says. "It was a really important story," he says. "It was a justified story."
And Tompkins doesn't think overaggressiveness is rampant in the profession. "The big problem is we're not aggressive enough," he says. "We don't seek enough truths. We tend to shoot our big elephant guns at stories that don't deserve it."
Max Cacas, senior online producer for the Freedom Forum, says the WPLG story didn't call for this intrusion. Even if the events occurred exactly as Unruh claims, she crossed the line, he says. "She still went to a hospital. People are sick in hospitals, and they're not always at their best." If Cacas was Unruh's producer, he adds, Sisser "would have to be an ax murderer before I gave her a bye for what she did."
Unruh is known as an aggressive investigator, garnering the nickname "Pitbull in Pumps" early in her 15-year-plus career. …