By: Catherine S. Blake, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A week ago, Dick Rosetta expected to spend much of February writing about Michelle Kwan skating her way toward a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
But he also was invited to carry the Olympic torch just before the Games begin in Salt Lake City. His editor, seeing a conflict, told him to choose between the two. Rosetta picked the torch.
News organizations throughout Utah are grappling with the same ethical question over reporters participating in an event they are covering: Journalists from four of the state’s six daily papers will carry the torch as it heads for Salt Lake City.
Salt Lake Tribune Editor James E. Shelledy said he didn’t think twice before making his decision about the torch.
“Our ethical guidelines state if you are directly involved in reporting or editing a news story you can’t be part of that event,” he said. “This is not just about the torch but about the Olympics. I am protecting the integrity of the news gathering. That is all I can protect.”
The newspaper will allow two people — a popular columnist and the publisher — to carry the torch. Shelledy said the two men have a sufficient distance from news reporting to preserve the paper’s objectivity.
The city’s other daily newspaper, the Mormon-church owned Deseret News, will allow anyone on staff to carry the torch. Six people from the paper already have or will, said Rick Hall, managing editor. Hall is one of them, as is the reporter who led the paper’s coverage of the scandal in which planners were accused of paying off International Olympic Committee members.
“The torch is not graft or bribery or a gift,” Hall said. “Reporters need to be removed from stories to (be sure) they are not compromised. We didn’t see this as a conflict because it won’t change the way we cover the Olympics.”
Reporters at the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and The Daily Herald in Provo also will participate in the torch relay.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution assigned two reporters to run in the torch relay and cover it from a first-person perspective, Sports Editor Robert Mashburn said.
“Journalists should be in the audience, not on the stage,” said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. “If we become participants we no longer have the distance that allows us to observe as an independent journalist.”
The problem becomes even stickier when news organizations — such as NBC — tie themselves financially to the success of the games. Brink Chipman, news director for local NBC affiliate KSL, said the station faces continuous questions about the impartiality of the station’s reporting.
NBC paid $545 million for the U.S. rights to broadcast the 2002 Games, part of a multibillion-dollar contract for the same rights to every Olympics through 2008.
“I think we’re all in an awkward situation,” he said. “We are a sponsor, but that has not stopped us from doing broad, intense coverage of the Olympics. If we didn’t cover them honestly and legitimately, people would write about it and report it … we’d be killed.”
Chipman said the station’s policy is to allow “personalities” such as the weatherman and anchors to carry the torch, but not reporters or editors.
NBC isn’t the only news outlet with financial ties to the games.
The Tribune and Deseret News each donated free advertising space to the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in exchange for tickets to events and opening and closing ceremonies.
Bob McClory, associate professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said ethical concerns sometimes can be carried too far. He thinks Rosetta’s case is an example. “This is simply an honor for an old grizzled journalist. We’re not talking about revealing state secrets,” he said.
Rosetta, 60, said he planned to retire before the Olympics, but his editor asked him to stay because his experience was needed. Now he wonders why he flew around the country covering figure skaters for nearly two years.
“I’ve been a patriot from the get-go and this is the American thing to do,” he said. “You don’t turn down carrying the torch for the Olympics. I don’t care who you work for.”