Syracuse abuse case stirs media ethics debate

More than eight years ago, ESPN and a Syracuse newspaper had an audiotape on which the wife of a Syracuse University assistant basketball coach now accused of sex abuse said she knew "everything that went on" with him.

They kept it to themselves — not reporting the news of its existence and not turning it over to authorities who are now investigating claims against Bernie Fine.

That has left ESPN and the Syracuse Post-Standard open to legal and journalistic second-guessing, most prominently when an Onondaga County district attorney this week blasted them for not promptly sharing with police the 2002 recording between Fine's wife and his chief accuser, former ball boy Bobby Davis.

The tape was not made public until a few weeks ago, after a second accuser — Davis' stepbrother — said he, too, had been molested by Fine.

Syracuse University fired Fine the day the tape aired.

And a debate ensued in public and in the industry over whether the outlets did the right thing in holding onto the tape. The newspaper published an explanation of its decision, and more than 300 readers commented, many of them highly critical.

Experts said media outlets have no clear obligation to share what they know with police, especially after their original reporting found they didn't have enough information to publish a story. However, some say moral and ethical responsibilities should come into play.

Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said questions about Davis' credibility could have been answered years ago had the tape been turned over then.

"We would have known flat out the kid was telling the truth. Then we would have done exactly what we are doing today: Are there other victims? Are there other potential victims who have been abused but chose not to come forward?" the prosecutor said at a news conference Wednesday to announce that the statute of limitations prevented him from bringing state charges against Fine.

Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, said that he could understand how someone in hindsight might question the role of the press, but that the news agencies made the right decision.

"The journalist's role in this case was to investigate and if they came up with solid evidence, to publish a story," he said. "It doesn't make much sense to pass on something that you're not certain of the strength of to law enforcement officials. It's also important to remember that journalists, to function properly, need to be independent. They can't be seen as an arm of the government or people no longer want to be passing information on to them."

However, the Poynter Institute's Roy Clark said that while journalists should not automatically give police information, in this case, "my inclination would be to share with law enforcement to the degree that I thought there might be a child or some children out there who might be vulnerable to a predator."

"Journalists don't have any special exemption from generally accepted ethical and moral responsibilities," he said from the Florida-based journalism school.

Executive Editor Michael Connor told readers it was "unimaginable" for the Post-Standard to give police materials the newspaper was not confident enough to publish. The newspaper's management pushed for more, and Davis made the 46-minute recording with the newspaper's knowledge.

"Imagine a news organization, failing to lock up a story, fueling police investigations by passing along leftovers from its reporting," Connor wrote in a Nov. 30 column. "Imagine how quickly we would lose the trust of sources we rely on and readers who turn to us if we turned from watch dog of government agencies to lap dog at their call."

Connor did not respond to The Associated Press when contacted after Fitzpatrick's comments.

Both organizations knew Davis, 39, had gone to the police to say the longtime Syracuse coach had molested him as a boy, though without the recording. The police told Davis in 2002 that the statute of limitations had expired.

Fine, who has since been accused by two other men, remains under federal investigation. He has denied the allegations.

"It's not necessarily the journalist's role to go to the police with potential evidence that at the time we didn't believe was strong enough to report ourselves," ESPN's vice president and director of news, Vince Doria, said on the network.

ESPN aired the recording after recently enlisting a voice recognition expert to compare it with an online video of Laurie Fine and verify it was her, Doria said, noting that was something they were unable to do when they'd first received the tape.

"I know everything that went on, you know. I know everything that went on with him," Laurie Fine says on the tape.

Lee Coppola, a former federal prosecutor and former dean of St. Bonaventure University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, suggested there's middle ground: The news organizations, after deciding they didn't have enough to publish, could have gone to authorities with the caveat that if it turned into something, they would have first crack at the story.

"It was the moral obligation of the newspaper, an obligation to society as a whole, not just to journalism as a profession, to provide the tape to authorities who had more resources to investigate than it did," Coppola said. "If you have information about a potential crime, especially such a heinous one as this, and yet you cannot justify it for journalistic purposes, that doesn't mean that someone else can't justify it for legal purposes."