Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Ambush Journalism

Disclaimer: I am a cycling fan.

Objectivity. It is something that we teach in journalism classes. It is something I learned early in my education at NMSU, and it was something that I tried to practice every day during my professional career. At times, I had my doubts. Often I felt that I tried to be "harder" on sources with whom I identified. Rather than trying to be solely neutral, I tried to make sure no one could accuse me of being sympathetic with Cause X. Nonetheless, I strove for objectivity in every story that I wrote.

Yesterday, the French sports magazine L'Equipe leveled new allegations against U.S. cyclist Lance Armstrong claiming that they have evidence that he used a red blood cell enhancing drug in 1999, his first Tour de France win. The ethical problems with this story -- no matter the facts of the case -- are extreme. First, L'Equipe and the Tour organizers share parent ownership. This is akin to Time Warner owning the NFL. The conflict of interest is so deep that objectivity is impossible. Secondly, the laboratory that developed the EPO urine test did so with the explicit agreement that no possible positive tests on the development samples would be used to punish cyclists. Thus, the lab says they cannot make a match.

But the decidedly unobjective L'Equipe has tried to make the match, showing evidence linking Armstrong to the anonymous sample provided to the lab. It is virtually impossible to disprove this kind of allegation. There are so many possible problems -- including the need for proof of chain of ownership for the urine sample for 6 years.

The point is not about Armstrong, but rather the profession of journalism. Objectivity is not guaranteed. Even here -- where the First Amendment orients us toward a different press role than the French -- we have lapses, such as the Food Lion case and the exploding truck on network news. However, we have a system that recognizes such dirty tactics as unacceptable. The French -- already stung by not having a native rider win the Tour in as long as can be remembered -- seem to celebrate this ambush journalism. Hopefully we will continue to do better.


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