Public exposure of Cubs’ fan was not fair

Bob Steele

Sure, I’m a Cubs fan and I was bleeding Cubbies blue when they self-destructed in the eighth inning of game six of the National League playoffs. And, yep, I was upset with “the play” that rattled Wrigley.
But I see no justifiable purpose for a public pillorying of the fan who got in the way of Cubs’ outfielder Moises Alou’s attempt to snare that foul ball down the left field line. And I see no journalistic purpose for naming the guy, even if his action is the talk of the town.
The Chicago Sun-Times was among media outlets that named the chap who reached up for the ball as it flew into the first row of seats, perhaps keeping Alou from catching the ball for the second out of the inning. In fact, the Sun-Times went so far as to name the fan’s employer.
Chicago Sun-Times Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke told Editor and Publisher that his paper went with the fan’s name because “It is the biggest news story in town and this is Chicago. We talked about it for a little while and came down on the side of publishing it. It was not 100 to 0, but the decision was made and on we go.”
It’s easy for Cooke and his Sun-Times journalists to say “on we go.” But it won’t be easy for that fan to go on with his life. Not only did he have to put up with considerable verbal abuse at Wrigley before he was escorted out by security for his own safety, but it’s reasonable to recognize that he is still in some jeopardy.
At the least, he’ll receive a barrage of criticism. He likely will receive nasty phone calls and condemning letters. Someone who is particularly mean-spirited may even target him for a punch in the chops.
The Chicago Tribune’s Dan McGrath, assistant managing editor for sports, told Poynter Online that he “argued against naming” the fan. “He didn’t do anything criminal. Not even anything wrong,” McGrath said.
I agree. The fan was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The foul ball flew right at him. It was a natural instinct to reach up for the ball, something dozens of fans do at the ballpark every game when a foul ball goes into the stands.
Sure, I’ll bet this fan wishes he could wind back the clock, and he would be diving backwards to avoid the leaping Alou. But there is no way he could have anticipated Alou leaping like he did high over the wall and reaching into the first row of seats.
He deserves some compassion in this case.
“The guy is a young adult trying to get his life together,” McGrath said. “The level of passion Cubs’ fans feel … inflates those passions. I hate to see this guy get hurt. There are enough crazy people out there who might be a threat to him.”
That’s the crux of this issue as a matter of news judgment and ethical decision-making. It’s about balancing our role of telling every detail of a story against what harm might occur when we do so.
In this case, the value of naming this fan just doesn’t carry enough weight compared to the potential negative consequences.
He didn’t break any laws. He wasn’t unethical. He didn’t steal the catcher’s signs to the pitcher and relay them to the opponents. He didn’t yell obscenities at the bullpen pitchers. He didn’t intentionally harm someone. All he did was react just as most fans would at that moment. He’s already paid a big price for his error.
He doesn’t deserve to be pilloried by the press and the public.

Bob Steele is senior faculty and ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute. His column was originally posted on Poynter Online at
www.Poynter.org