Ethics are everything
I was 24 when I shot this photo at the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2003 training camp in Georgetown, Kentucky as a photographer with The Cincinnati Post. I was motivated, hungry and naive.
That fellow playing a video game on the edge of a dorm room bed is wide receiver Chad Johnson, a player who has become so good at puppeteering the media that most refer to him today by his “stage name” of Chad Ochocinco. He was the first player in camp when I arrived at Georgetown University’s campus seven years ago. A quiet guy back then, Chad was starting out on his third year in the National Football League. He was motivated, hungry and naive.
I photographed him during his previous two professional seasons, but he was still mostly unheralded. I could tell he was a bright light with talent and enthusiasm despite a good deal of shyness. He was just getting a feel for his place in the business of professional football, much like I was in newspapers.
I was shooting with a pool Nikon D1 camera and a hand-me-down lens so scuffed up it gave every photo I shot a cloudy, dreamy feel to it. Like Johnson, I was raring to go but inexperienced. I had a lot to learn. Still do.
Even yet, I never had difficulty understanding the ethics of the industry I was trying to gain a foothold in. These ethics were made perfectly clear to me from my onset by the gentleman who worked at the newspaper long before me. Guys like Melvin Grier and Dale Dunaway taught with their actions first, and confident yet measured advice second. They led by example and coached so consistently it would have been impossible for me not to understand the rights and wrongs within the industry. Lines were drawn, they were stark and they were not to be challenged. Unless maintaining respect wasn’t a priority.
Every industry has sacred things I suppose. Even Johnson, a player who is known for pushing the limits of rules and guidelines, has a set of boundaries he knows he can’t trample on. He can’t gamble on the game, for example. There are sacred things in journalism that also can’t be compromised and if they are, there’s no coming back. Ethics in print journalism is a one way street. They aren’t designed to bend. Fittingly, the rules are self-policed, meaning the very people you work with will eventually expose you if you decide to swerve from this deeply entrenched path. Built-in whistle blowers. Not too many other industries can boast that.
That’s why I was troubled when I read an article yesterday about two Cincinnati “journalists” who reportedly asked for and received an autograph from a rookie Denver Broncos quarterback after a preseason game this week. I nearly fell out of my desk chair while reading it. Reportedly, one was a writer and the other was (gulp) a photographer. A major breech in the ethical walls of journalism and a total embarrassment to everyone in the business. Truly a fireable offense.
Lots of people ask me what it’s like to cover professional sporting events. I tell them it’s like work. I’ve been asked about my credentials too. These days, just about every event has a dedicated credential assigned to you. That’s ridiculous in its own right, but you accept these credentials as a working member of the press and understand there are certain professional responsibilities expected of you. Never ask for an autograph pretty much tops the list, although any journalist worth a darn doesn’t need to be reminded of this.
My guess is, these two “journalists” were college students, or work for a blog or television station. I suspect they really didn’t belong in the locker room in the first place. It’s certainly clear they don’t belong now.
When just one or two in an industry of thousands cross ethical lines, though, it can have a damning effect on all of us. Those misguided actions ring much louder in the same way we all notice when a cop breaks the law. Being naive and new to the business offers no excuse. You learn from the start, ethics are everything.