Should people the media report on or who deal regularly with the press be entitled to as much information about reporters and editors as the press presumably has about them?
Intermountain Health Care's public relations office says so. It uses this argument in defending its use of "monitoring reports" it has compiled on some journalists and public relations people. The memoranda were written by IHC press relations staffers after luncheons or other meetings. The gleanings included such nuggets as affiliations, family and views.However well-intentioned the practice might have been, it was unsound, and, when revealed, self-defeating.
The practice came to light in a story by JoAnn Jacobsen-Wells and Marianne Funk in Monday's Deseret News. They said they had obtained IHC's reports on Joseph Rolando, a Tribune business writer; Lee Roderick, managing editor at KSL-TV, and Pam Fogle, University of Utah director of public relations.
IHC's vice president for public relations, Jan Hemming, says the reports were not the result of any formal policy or system, that the information was handled casually, as in a memo, that no files were kept and that reports were by no means dossiers. (The newspaper stories largely avoided that word. It appeared in one Deseret News piece and in a Tribune headline.)
- "THE PERCEPTION IS we kept a database, and that's not true," Hemming says. "They were reports written after get-acquainted meetings, and there were no follow-ups."
Hemming, who was a reporter for eight years, says the memoranda were aimed at building a good relationship with the media. Specifically, earlier this year they were used "to bring up to speed" a new employee. It was this person, disgruntled, who leaked the information to the Deseret News after leaving IHC, Hemming says. She says no reports have been compiled since June.
"The irony (in last week's flap) is that we were trying to do good," Hemming says.
- THE PITY IS that it was so unnecessary.
Hemming says that people who are reported on are not on a "level playing field" when dealing with reporters about whom they have no information. But a news source no more needs personal information about a reporter than the press needs irrelevant information about a source - personal data that has no bearing on the story, or in the case of a public official, on his or her job performance. (The great dilemma in reporting on a prominent politician's sexual peccadillos, for instance, is whether they are of public concern - specifically, whether they make the official unfit for office.)
- IN THE YEARS I was a reporter, most of my sources never knew or cared, as far as I knew, whether I was married, what my religion was, what my habits were, or what kind of family I came from or had or even my educational background. We didn't socialize and shouldn't have. It was sufficient for them to know from my performance how objectively and competently I could cover the beat.
True, the media as a whole have a checkered record on privacy lately, having contributed to its erosion through undercover reporting, hidden cameras and tape recorders and outrageous questions.
Yet no media I know of keep records on people obtained from private conversations, much less from small talk. They keep files of clippings that may include a resume or related material, information that has been made a matter of public record. Reporters do not gather personal information on their sources to be reduced to memoranda for internal distribution.
Hemming says that perhaps IHC should simply have asked reporters for resumes. It's not likely many would comply. Keeping any personal memoranda on the press is a bad practice, if only because it conveys the suggestion that the information is going to be used to manipulate the media.
- A REVULSION IS GROWING against the keeping of data on individuals that could be construed as an invasion of privacy.
This is accompanied by a strong presumption that people on whom records are made should have a right to see them. Since the 1960s, public and quasi-public agencies have been required under various legislation to open records. Note the federal Freedom of Information Act of 1967, the 1971 act opening up our credit reports to our inspection and a 1976 act making university records on a student open to him or her, as well as protecting confidentiality.
The IHC practice was recommended by a public relations consultant who says writing memos on media people's backgrounds is standard practice in public relations organizations. The Deseret News reported subsequently, however, that the majority of the members of the Intermountain Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America do not subscribe to this view. Forty-three of 45 who responded to a poll said they did not.
The Tribune quoted the response of Dale Zabriskie, one of the most respected of Utah public relations men, "As a professional I take offense to someone saying that is a normal public relations practice." And the Deseret News said John Serfustini, media relations supervisor at Utah Power & Light Co., which has had its ups and downs with the media, had never heard of the practice.
- THAT IS REASSURING. Public relations has been getting more and more proactive and now sometimes does battle with the press when companies feel they have been abused. I would not want to learn that PR people were adding the questionable memorandum practice to their arsenals.
The reactions of two media people who were told by the Deseret News that IHC was keeping memoranda on them were resignation in one case, outrage in the other. However pure IHC's motives were, outrage wasn't an inappropriate reaction.