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Our story | Maybe it was the hat |

Phil Record tells: the way it was

The ethics of journalism has changed a lot over the years. And that's not such a bad thing.

By Phil Record

Ethics-wise, things are much different on the police beat today than when Bob Schieffer and I covered it for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in the late 1950s and early '60s.

That probably is a blessing.

It certainly was fun covering what was fondly called the Cop Shoppe. But actions that were considered ethical then would be questionable now.

I teach media ethics in the Schieffer School of Journalism. I often cite some of our behavior to demonstrate how ethical standards have changed.

When I was finally persuaded to give up my beloved police beat in 1963 to become assistant night city editor, I encouraged senior editors at the paper to hire Bob as my replacement.

They weren't thrilled. After all, he was an "electrician" -- a journalist working for a radio or TV station -- employed by rock ‘n' roll station KXOL. But in the several years Bob and I worked together, I had learned that not only was he a top-notch reporter, but also a fine writer.

The editors took my advice, and Bob quickly demonstrated that my judgment had been correct.

One of the first things I had Bob do when he came to the Star-Telegram was buy a snap-brim hat. He needed to look like a detective when covering crime stories.

"That's unethical, professor," students love to tell me.

The hat always comes up when we study truth-telling and deception.

A snap-brim hat was a great tool for newspaper reporters in those days. Detectives always wore coats, tie and hats. A reporter in the same attire could easily blend.

We figured that if others mistook us for detectives, that was their problem.

There were no police or fire lines marked by bright yellow tape, so it was easy to access a crime scene, especially if you looked like a detective. At times even uniformed patrolmen assigned to guard a scene would let Bob or me pass through, thinking we were detectives. Note that we never identified ourselves as detectives. That would have been, well, dishonest.

We especially enjoyed our deception when the "electricians" would show up and be ordered off the premises by a property owner not wanting publicity. No such order would be given to Bob, me or other like-attired newspaper reporters.

We saw no problem with that in those days.

We would move around the scene, listening to detectives question witnesses. And, yes, sometimes we would question the witnesses without first informing them that we were reporters.

As Bob still loves to recount, "We always thought people had a First Amendment right to talk to Star-Telegram reporters even if they didn't know they were reporters."

Now, dear readers, let me ease your minds a bit. Before we left the scene, we would tell the person we had just interviewed that he had been talking to a reporter. Surprisingly, few objected.

Still, most ethicists probably would take a dim view of our deception.
Note that I never said that the detectives we liked to imitate in dress objected to our presence. That's because we often found or heard something that they had missed (most police departments did not have the highly trained crime scene investigators they have today).

Quite a few detectives so enjoyed our presence that they would have us ride with them. One venerable homicide detective would get so excited when dispatched to the scene of a killing that he would stop at green lights and run through the red ones. I still don't know why we were never in a wreck.

We were frequently invited to sit in on the questioning of suspects. Sometimes the suspects knew we were reporters, sometimes they didn't. Remember, these were the days before the Miranda warning given to all criminal suspects.

On more than one occasion, I was able to get a suspect to confess after detectives failed to do so.

I don't know how many times Bob, I and other reporters would witness the confessions of suspects. Today this certainly would be deemed a conflict of interest.

Sometimes we would even type up the confessions because most of us on the news side could type faster than the cops.

Another difference back then: Funeral homes in Tarrant County operated emergency ambulances. The ambulance service, which only cost $10 or $15 a ride, provided publicity for the funeral homes and also gave them an advantage in arranging services for those who were dead on arrival at the hospital.

I had the policy of saying that a victim was taken to the hospital by an ambulance from a specific funeral home if the attendants had helped me gather information. Otherwise, I would report that John Doe was taken to Peter Smith Hospital by emergency ambulance.

So it wasn't unusual for a representative of a funeral home to stop by the Cop Shoppe press room at Christmas to drop off bottles of booze for reporters. These gifts, we always rationalized, were thanks for past mentions, not for any free publicity in the future.

The police reporters were not the only ones who received such tokens of appreciation. One theater chain gave our male movie critics a nice sports coat from one of the city's leading department stores every Christmas.

In 1973, the Society of Professional Journalists revised its code of ethics and urged journalists to stop accepting freebies. The nation's news media were not required to follow the code, but it served as a guideline adopted by numerous organizations throughout the country.

So we said farewell to the bottles of booze and the sports coats. And rightfully so, even though few of us went out of our way to provide the gift-giver with something extra in the way of publicity. But, as I am quick to point out in class, the appearance of a conflict of interest can damage your credibility as much as an actual conflict.

Those funeral home ambulances also provided us with transportation in the days when most reporters used their own cars, which were not equipped with radio hookup to the office. It was not uncommon for me to ride to the scene of a crime or accident with the police, them hop in the ambulance for a ride to the hospital.

If the victim being transported wanted to provide me with some information during the often wild ride, so be it. And there were times that we provided help in treating the victim.

Thank goodness such would not be considered today, with the privacy laws enacted in recent years and the skilled attendants assigned to today's ambulance services.

When Bob and I covered the police beat, it was standard procedure to give the name, age and home address of all victims of crime and accidents. We would balk at doing less.

Today, it is common practice to delete a victim's home address to protect the person's privacy. Reporters will even withhold the name of a suspect if a compelling reason can be shown.

Yes, ethical standards have come a long way in 40 years. And 40 years from now, I hope that generation of journalists will say that standards have improved for them, too.

Let it be noted that none of the many ethical improvements seen in the news media have been mandated by the First Amendment. That sacred statement imposes no responsibility of accuracy or balance or fairness on the news media.

All the raised standards have been self-imposed.

Phil Record was employed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for 43 years, retiring in 1997 as the paper's first ombudsman. He has been a professional in residence in TCU's Journalism Department, now the Schieffer School of Journalism, since 1999.
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