Home > Uncategorized > Media ethics, Rose Bowl tickets and naming names

Media ethics, Rose Bowl tickets and naming names

December 16, 2010

I’ve been required to write another ethics paper this semester, and I thought I’d share it right away this time. Enjoy.

It seems it is not a true semester at the University of Wisconsin until The Badger Herald creates some form of controversy, which then results in some form of uproar on a campus-wide, local or national scale.  Mark down Dec. 5, 2010, on your calendar as the date on which the Fall 2010 semester became official in Madison.  It was on that day that the Herald published the names of more than 30 students who had, within hours of the tickets selling out, posted Rose Bowl tickets for sale at prices well above face value.  Such actions were deemed outrageous by Kevin Bargnes, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, who penned the article, while opting not to put his name on such a story (likely for fear of ridicule from those whose names were listed).  So punishable were the decisions made by the accused that Bargnes, with no one in a position of authority above him to advise against it, subjected these students to undue criticism and ridicule through Facebook and via e-mail, while (sort of) avoiding it himself by not putting his name on the story.  Not only did Bargnes draw attention to the subject of the UW Athletic Department’s ticketing policies, he also garnered a lot of national media attention to the newspaper, some of which supported his position (Deadspin, for example)  and some that did not (nearly everyone else).  After the editorial piece quickly became the most commented story on the newspaper website, including many inappropriate comments, the comments section was closed, the wording of the story was edited, and the Herald’s editorial board realized it was a situation it must address.  In doing so, however, they did not stand against Bargnes’ unilateral decision to post the names.  At the same time, the newspaper decided to remove the names, citing a lack of resources to post names for everyone selling tickets, rather than acknowledging the mistake it had made.  Throughout the entire process, the Herald failed quite miserably to uphold one of the major portions of the code of ethics followed by the Society of Professional Journalists, that of minimizing harm.

In the SPJ code of ethics, it says, “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect,” and that, “Journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”  In printing the names of nearly three dozen students who had posted Rose Bowl tickets for sale on the Facebook marketplace, Bargnes and the Herald paid no mind to this portion of the code of ethics.  If it had been considered, especially with the way the original story was worded, Bargnes should have realized that by printing these names — which he had easily found on Facebook himself — the Herald would subject these students to an unwarranted barrage of negative commentary from other students, some of which went as far as death threats on the students and their families.  Regardless of whether the threats were serious or credible, they’re certainly not something to be taken lightly.  While such threats were likely quite a surprise to Bargnes and the Herald staff, that is not a viable excuse for giving people the opportunity to make such threats.  Had those names not been posted in the newspaper, those students likely would have been able to profit from such sales in peace, without a crusade of enraged Wisconsin students accusing them of being the “worst people on campus,” as suggested by the headline of the editorial.

To make things worse, the article said there was a “special place in hell” for those who scalp Rose Bowl tickets, while also asking fellow students to “ridicule the ever-loving shit out of the above people.”  Bargnes and the herald can claim that the articles was a joke all they want, but when people do exactly what was suggested, there’s only one place to look for whom to blame in this case.  As bad as those portions of the editorial were, the Herald’s remedy for such language in the article only made matters worse from an ethical standpoint.  First, closing the comments section — a portion of the website that has regularly gotten the newspaper in trouble in the past — was a mistake.  Sure, it may limit the number of inappropriate or derogatory comments that get through on the story, but there should be something in place to limit those in the first place.  More importantly, though, it does not allow for the same amount of public discussion that helped get the story so much attention in the first place.  Coupled with the fact that the original wording of the article was changed to be more appropriate, and such actions make it clear the Herald had realized it made a mistake in publishing Bargnes’ piece.  Yet, the piece remained on the site, and for a while, so did the list of names.

Eventually, of course, the names list was taken down, leaving just a snarky editorial piece with an editor’s note that claimed the list was taken down due to a lack of resources.  Nearly every previous action taken to edit the original post on the website showed at least a small sense of remorse, and seemed to acknowledge that what Bargnes and the Herald had done was a mistake.  Rather than admit it, however, the newspaper chose to brush it under the rug, accept the attention it had gotten (both good and bad) and move on with the final two weeks of the semester.  But because it was published in their print edition and distributed across the world wide web, those names are not really gone.  And even if they were, the effect on those people whose names were listed in the article certainly was not lessened by the fact that they were no longer listed as one of the “worst people on campus.”  Another section of the SPJ code of ethics is accountability.  In this section, it says that “Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other,” and that they should “admit mistakes and correct them promptly,” while they should also “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”  In this case, the Herald corrected its mistake, but did not do so promptly.  More importantly, though, the paper and its editor never admitted to its mistake.  Instead, they used an assortment of excuses, claiming it was a tongue-in-cheek joke, citing a lack of resources as the reason for taking down the list, and refusing to ever admit that what it did was wrong.  In fact, the closest it the newspaper came to apologizing for what it did was to apologize for the results of the story in the editorial board piece, while still maintaining that publishing the list of names was the right thing to do.  It also came close to apologizing without actually doing so in saying that it was not fair to list nearly three dozen names on the website when so many others were doing the same thing. That argument is part of what makes the article so questionable in the first place.

In the comments section and in many other published responses to Bargnes’ piece, the debate of economics, capitalism and scalping dominate the discussion that is not related to the appropriateness of naming names.  In these comments, some accuse Bargnes and his staff of not truly understanding economic and capitalistic principles.  In the newspaper’s defense, others say there is a difference between scalping and economics.  In reality, however, there is not.  It may be seen as an unethical act by some, but in a simple supply-and-demand environment, when tickets are only available to season ticket holders and donors, it makes simple economic sense to resell such tickets to those that are willing to pay high prices to get them.  But that’s beside the point of why it’s inappropriate to run such an article with the names of those selling tickets at inflated prices.  While they certainly drew attention to the subject of the ticket distribution practices of the UW Athletic Department, Bargnes and the Herald overlook another simple fact: tickets are scalped at every major sporting event.  Why not list the names of those selling their full-season tickets for major profits at the beginning of each semester?  Or call out those that sold their tickets to the Ohio State game this past October for more than what they paid for all seven games in the first place?  The answers to both, of course, are the lack of resources cited by the Herald.  Additionally, it makes sense from a marketing standpoint to put yourself on as big a stage as possible, and the Rose Bowl certainly qualifies as that.  But from a journalistic ethics standpoint, it’s certainly not fair to print such a small number of names when considering how many people scalp tickets every year.  As a member of the media, I get a season pass to football games, but that doesn’t stop me from using my ability as a student to buy season tickets and sell them for profit, which I’ve done each of the past two years.  In her response article on ESPN.com, Jemele Hill admitted the following, “If there’s a special place in hell for someone who re-sells a ticket to a sporting event for more than face value, then hell is going to have an extensive waiting list. And I’d be on it.”

While the ethical nature of scalping tickets — especially to an event like the Rose Bowl that is held so dear by Wisconsin football fans — is up for debate, it certainly is not illegal.  And it even more certainly does not merit one’s name being included on a list of the “worst people on campus.”  While his intent may have been admirable, Bargnes’ execution of his editorial piece was well off the mark, especially when the SPJ ethical standard of minimizing harm is applied.  To make matters worse, Bargnes and the Herald editorial board teamed up to fail to uphold the SPJ standard of accountability, giving it two strikes as far as the SPJ code of ethics is concerned.  The people listed certainly are not the “worst people on campus,” and the decision to run such an article was an ethical mistake, one that the Herald  and any other student journalists certainly ought to learn from in the future.

Works Cited:

SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. Accessed Dec. 15, 2010.

The Worst People on Campus.” The Badger Herald. Accessed Dec. 5, 2010 through Dec. 15, 2010 (as updated).

Wisconsin Student Paper Names, Shames Students Re-Selling Rose Bowl Tickets.” Deadspin.com. Accessed Dec. 15, 2010.

No shame in selling Wisconsin tickets.” ESPN.com. Accessed Dec. 15, 2010.


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