Media malpractice: It was wrong to publish a story about a coach’s daughter who tested positive for COVID

MUSKEGON – There are very few organized sports happening anywhere right now.

That means sports journalists have little or nothing of any substance to report.

For the first six weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, we published a few dozen stories, before we came to the obvious conclusion that we were essentially reporting nothing. So we put LocalSportsJournal.com on hold while we wait for local sports to be played again.

Having no news to report is tough for any type of journalist. But if there is no news, there is no news. Trying to make news out of nothing, just to have something to sell to the public, makes journalists susceptible to reporting fake or unethical news that could unnecessarily hurt people.

There is a young woman who happens to be the daughter of a well-known high school football coach in the Muskegon area. She is not the coach. She is not an assistant coach. She doesn’t even go to the school anymore. She graduated in 2018.

In short, she is not a public figure. She is simply the daughter of one.

In recent days, she posted on Facebook that she has tested positive for COVID-19. MLive.com, a statewide news network, somehow decided that her health status was news and published a story about it, citing only her Facebook post. The young woman was mortified, and expressed that in another post.

“To be clear, I did NOT give anybody permission to make a whole article, bro,” she wrote. “Neither did my dad. They made that without either one of our knowledge. We’re both pissed off. This is so unnecessary and embarrassing.”

Most people don’t have the first clue how American journalism functions. To grasp it, they have to realize there are no hard rules. There are no laws dictating the type of news that media can and cannot publish. Freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is exactly that – the freedom of the media to report any story it cares to publish, with very little in the way of legal accountability.

It has to be that way, because government is the only entity that could regulate news content, and when that begins, we become China. A free media exists, first and foremost, to keep us informed about what our elected politicians are up to, so we can hold them accountable. That could never happen if those same politicians had the power to decide what can and cannot be reported. They would simply ban any news that makes them look bad.

On the other hand, because they operate in such a free zone, and have such a tremendous impact on public sentiment, journalists have an absolute responsibility to govern themselves. That means making sure every story is true, fair and relevant, that the public has a compelling need to know the information, and that private citizens will not be hurt or embarrassed without a very good reason.

The last two parts of the previous paragraph clearly apply to the young woman who happens to be the daughter of a prominent football coach. The public would have been just fine without knowing about her health status.

MLive’s lone defense might be that the young woman initially posted the information online herself, which made it public. She was obviously assuming that only her family and friends would care. That was naïve on her part. If you don’t want something personal published in the news, don’t share it in a public forum. When you do, it’s fair game.

That doesn’t let MLive off the hook. There was no reason for publishing this story, beyond the safe assumption that the public would be interested because of her last name. Is that the only criteria for news these days – the level of public interest, and the number of reader clicks a story will attract, to please advertisers and make money?

The really scary part is that the people who publish these types of stories usually express no shame when confronted. They treat their victims like collateral damage. They had a legal right to publish the story, and if somebody was hurt because of it, so be it.

If basic decency is no longer a consideration in the news decision-making process, we may be too far gone to ever hope for recovery.

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