Schefter’s tweet brings ethics controversy

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Tweet from Adam Schefter

On July 4, 2015, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was involved in a significant fireworks accident. Pierre-Paul would eventually lose his index finger and the tip of his thumb on his right hand.

Rumors quickly spread throughout social media regarding the extent of the injury to the All-Pro’s hand, and whether or not his career was over.

The first real, concrete evidence (and controversy) of Pierre-Paul’s injury came when ESPN’s NFL Insider Adam Schefter tweeted out a photo of Pierre-Paul’s medical chart that showed that his index finger had been amputated.

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Jason Pierre-Paul (90) makes a tackle. Image: Sporting News

Pierre-Paul filed a lawsuit (has yet to be heard) against Schefter and ESPN claiming that his privacy was violated, claiming that Schefter “improperly obtained (Pierre-Paul’s) medical records from a hospital”, and then tweeted them out.

News organizations do not need to follow HIPPA rules. However, Florida statute 456.057(11) states that third parties who obtain medical information cannot disclose that information without the written permission of the patient or legal representatives.

Schefter, in an interview with Sports Illustrated, told Richard Deitsch that he never requested any images and that the image was sent to him. He also believed that the information shown in the image was not “sensitive” and that reporters report about these situations all the time.

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Adam Schefter. Image: ESPN Media Zone

“NFL reporters report on all kinds of medical information on a daily basis. That’s part of the job,” Schefter told Deitsch. “The only difference here was that there was a photo. It came to me unexpectedly, and it was used as part of the reporting, same as OTL, 20/20, Dateline NBC or 48 Hours would do.”

After Schefter’s tweet, many people were upset and considered it a breach of ethics to publish a medical chart. Schefter admitted that it’s a fair discussion.

“This is the part that I’ve struggled with because I’ve heard that questions raised and I’ve heard the criticisms. There’s no way not to consider the other point of view. But what I will say is this: My ethics, integrity and reputation are something I’ve worked as hard as possible to build and guard. In my 25-plus years of covering the league, I’ve consistently tried to act as responsibly and carefully as I can, and to not have anyone question my ethics. My job is to be as thorough and accurate as possible. In this case, as tough as the injury is for the player, I didn’t believe conveying the information about the unfortunate injury in words or a report caused additional harm. The information was going to come out soon. This was a very unique case, unlike many others. In trying to be thorough and accurate, we delivered that news as soon as possible with the supporting proof if it happened. To me, that’s just doing my job. But I am aware of the thoughtful discussion it generated. You think about it, you learn from it, and it becomes a part of your experience and thought process for if and when a similar difficult situation and decision should happen to arise again.”

“In my 25-plus years of covering the league, I’ve consistently tried to act as responsibly and carefully as I can, and to not have anyone question my ethics.”

Adam Schefter is one of the most trusted and influential reporters covering the NFL. I recall thinking when I first saw his tweet ‘how can he do this?’. Granted there really isn’t any sensitive information in the picture, but I feel that the chart is a very personal item and should not have been shared.

As mentioned, Schefter is one of the most trusted and respected reporters. Why not just tweet out that Pierre-Paul had his index finger amputated? If I had been in Schefter’s shoes, that is what I would have done. I also would have relied on my editors, fellow journalists and ESPN lawyers to make sure what I was doing was legal and ethical.

Schefter believes he should have done more research prior to tweeting the image.

“In hindsight I could and should have done even more here due to the sensitivity of the situation. We’ve got a great group of editors and production staff, and I could have leaned on them even more,” Schefter said. “ESPN has trusted me on any number of stories over the years, and granted me great latitude, fortunately. Sometimes in the fast-paced news world we live in, it’s easy to forget you should lean on the knowledge and experience of the people surrounding you. They’re always there for everything, but especially stories like this. On this one, there should have been even more discussion than there was due to the sensitivity of the story; that’s on me.”

“Sometimes in the fast-paced news world we live in, it’s easy to forget you should lean on the knowledge and experience of the people surrounding you.”

Lawsuit aside, this story brings up a good discussion about ethics. This is also a good reminder to take a step back when reporting and consider all possible outcomes and consequences. It’s also a reminder to lean on others (editors, lawyers, medical professionals, etc.) when dealing with sensitive stories.

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