COVERING SPORTS SCANDALS
BY NICOLE KRAFT, PF&R CHAIR
It was the emails that got me.
In a story entitled, “Zach Smith Ordered Sex Toys to Ohio State Offices, Had Sex With Staffer, Took Nude Photos at White House,” sports writer Brett McMurphy chronicled how former Ohio State assistant football coach Zach Smith did, well, what the headline indicated.
It was the Aug. 17 edition of an ongoing story McMurphy broke about domestic violence allegations against Smith by his ex-wife, Courtney. The series launched in early August and tore through Ohio State with every publishing.
Football coach Urban Meyer was put on leave. The athletic department was in turmoil. The national media was barking daily at the administration for who knew what and when, and why they did what they did—or didn’t do anything.
I am not here to defend or bury Ohio State. The Smiths’ story and how it was handled will continue to reverberate through our dorms and classrooms, and around our athletics department, for years to come.
But those emails.
When does the pursuit of a story cross the line from journalism to salacious gossip. When does objectivity reporting become subjective persecution.
I argue the Aug. 17 article crossed the line.
The article started off with sound enough news value: “Documents and receipts Stadium has obtained show Zach Smith ordered more than $2,200 in sex toys, male apparel and photography equipment and had the items delivered to him at Ohio State’s Woody Hayes Athletic Center in 2015.”
We then moved from PG into R-rated: “Courtney Smith said Zach Smith took multiple photos of his penis inside the Ohio State coaches’ offices, inside the White House when the Buckeyes visited in 2015 and also photographed himself in the coaches’ offices receiving oral sex and having sex with a OSU staffer.”
But we moved soundly past the family hour with a description of the items delivered to Smith the at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center between February and May 2015. Kids, now is when you may want to stop reading.
Here we go: “A men’s spider enhancer thong triple c—ring, body wear CS2 metallic erotic c—strap gold and snake skin, Wildman T ball lifter red, Candyman men’s jock suspenders, PetitQ open slit bikini brief and studio pro product table top photography lighting kit.”
Oh, but McMurphy was not done. He next headed straight over the ethical cliff.
The article included screen captures of the sex toys--so we had a clear image of that which deserved to be private--quite likely provided by Mrs. Smith’s access to the family Amazon account.
I will never get out of my mind the images of the Candyland Men’s Jock Suspensors, White, in X-Large—just $19!
Was it smart to order sex toys off a site your angry, soon-to-be ex-wife can find? No. Is it a good idea to have them delivered to your office? Probably not. But does someone lose their rights to privacy by making poor life decisions? Is it a journalists’ right or responsibility to expose a marriage from the inside out?
The news value of Zach Smith’s actions and the stain he brought to Ohio State cannot be denied. But ethically, there are guidelines journalists must follow to ensure we do not become manipulators of the story, and McMurphy seems to have lost sight of them.
Let’s consider the parts of the SPJ Code of Ethics that applies and could/should have been easily referenced:
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
I invited McMurphy to come to Ohio State to explain to our students how such decisions were made, but he declined, citing safety concerns that, based on Twitter, were logical.
Without his insights, I have no words to explain to my students the motivation behind this story or what made those item images worthy of being news.
What I do have is a perfect scenario to help them evaluate how ethics are poorly applied.