Ethics 2012: Case Study #5

Case Study #5: A Congressman’s Past

WHAT: You’ve learned that a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, up for re-election to his fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither the congressman, David Wu, nor his accuser wanted to discuss the case now, only weeks before the 2004 election.

The (Portland) Oregonian spent months trying to discover the truth about this persistent rumor. On Oct. 12, 2004, it published an article more than 3,000 words long explaining what if found out. On that same day, Congressman Wu held a news conference to say he did something regrettable in his youth, but he didn’t think it was relevant now. Other media picked up the story, of course, and his Republican opponent used it in her campaign.

Here’s a summary: Wu and his ex-girlfriend were science majors at Stanford University. She broke up with him in the spring of 1976. That summer, Wu was questioned by Stanford campus police after his ex-girlfriend said he tried to force her to have sex with him. Wu told police it was consensual. He was not arrested. The woman declined criminal prosecution and didn’t file a formal disciplinary complaint.

Wu refused to be interviewed or to answer written questions about the incident when The Oregonian asked him about it 28 years later. Wu’s ex-girlfriend also declined to comment, either in person or through a representative. Stanford officials wouldn’t discuss it either, citing university policy and student confidentiality laws.

So how did The Oregonian get its story? Here are some quotes from its article:
“Reporters contacted scores of former Stanford students, current and retired university officials and professors, law associates, and former campaign staffers and friends of Wu to determine what occurred. …
“The account that follows is based on recollections of the Stanford patrol commander, the woman’s counselor, two professors who supervised dormitories at the time and several classmates who were on campus that year.”

Question: Should The Oregonian publish this story?

WHO: The decision-makers are newsroom managers and executives at The Oregonian. If they decide to do a story, the other competing news outlets in Portland face the decision of how to follow the story.

The stakeholder with the most to lose if the story appears clearly is Congressman David Wu. His accuser, who remained unnamed and uninterested in having the story pursued, also has a stake. The public has a stake in this story, especially those who live in Congressman Wu’s district and will be deciding whether to re-elect him. His opponents in the election have a stake. Stanford University and its reputation could take a hit. Some readers might think your newspaper has a biased agenda, because it endorsed Wu’s Republican opponent, Goli Ameri. There may be others. Think of as many as you can, and consider their varying degrees of involvement — harm or benefit — from the publishing of this story.

WHY: Clearly, there is a truth here that has gone unreported for a generation. And a journalist’s primary obligation is to tell the truth. But how important a truth is it? Consider the possible consequences of your reporting. The congressman could lose his seat. His long-ago accuser might be badgered by other media organizations. Should you be concerned about that? Are you trying to salvage your reputation after an alternative weekly own a Pulitzer the previous year for a sex abuse story involving a former Oregon governor? Examine competing principles and decide what’s the best outcome.

HOW: Do you pursue the story and publish it?

7 comments on “Ethics 2012: Case Study #5
  1. I don’t think that the best idea would be to publish it. It was twenty-eight years ago! Nobody really cares what people did when they were in college. People do stupid things in college.Plus, if it had actually been serious his ex-girlfriend would have pressed charges. Obviously, it wasn’t that bad. Maybe she made it up to get back at him because she was upset at him for some reason.
    The Oregonian supports his opponents, so I think they are just trying to dig up dirt to help their cause. Maybe it’s the opponent whose giving them the information to ruin his chances. They could have fake sources and just happen to get one person to squeal about it. They could have illegally gotten hold of his record and saw that there was a complaint against him. Maybe it’s all a big hoax to get him off his campaign track mind so the opponent can win. Have you ever thought about it that way? It’s just to waste his time and make him lose focus by bringing up the past. If I had the choice whether or not to publish it, then I* wouldn’t. I wouldn’t give the Oregonian and the opponent what they want.

  2. Ethics #5
    Lauren’s Response

    So today my opinion on the story is different than my other answers. I believe that you should not re-post the story. Though the public would definitely eat it up like ravenous dogs, people have to realize how long ago it was.

    He was in college, and he was looking for his life career like millions of kids every year. Sure, he lied about it, but who hasn’t told a lie? Though he stood behind a lie, it takes a lot to admit you were wrong, which is what he did.

    What people need to see is that destroying a man’s career and life for a good story is NOT ETHICAL. Isn’t that the title of the assignment? I believe it is ethical to respect that he has admitted he is wrong and move one. There will definitely be more award winning stories out there.

    I may be repeating it, but it was over twenty years ago! I’m pretty sure there are more students than him who have done something they regret during their college years. They never asked them to write a story, because they weren’t famous. He wasn’t famous at the time either, and now that he is they are bringing it into the light, like every other popular person. Dig up the dirt, right?

  3. katieshow!:) says:

    When you're in college, you are technically an adult. However, many people have not matured yet. The girlfriend in anger in the heat of the moment decided she would try to get Wu into trouble, then later regretted it. Time has a way of making something that seemed awful acceptable later on. It is very possible the girlfriend even lied or stretched the truth.

    There are many people who will not vote for a man precisely because it is possible he sexually assaulted a woman. They will not look to his political experience, capabilities, or even bother to find out if he is even guilty or not. This could ruin the man's career, something he has spent his whole life building.

    I would not publish the story. As Wu said, it is irrelevant to his current situation, and it happened almost 30 years ago. I realize a journalist's job is to the report the truth, but honestly it was over a quarter of a century ago. If it were cold hard truth of a murder or something similar, it would need to be printed. But iffy evidence of an attempted rape that was never proved and later abandoned by the accuser seems hardly important. A person needs to learn to pick his battles, and this story is insignificant in most regards.

  4. Renee Horton says:

    I believe if they were to publish this story about had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault that it would ruin him. If his ex-girlfriend doesn’t want this to be published this makes me wounder if he really did want she is saying he did. That beings me to my point why doesn’t she want this to be publish is it because it isn’t true or is she just looking out for him. Well my opinion is that she is ling and want she really wants in his money that probably why she doesn’t want this published. But then again I think that yes people should know this because he could be the next president and he could do that again but people can change. But lets say that he did get re-elected and he was to do it again and the public were to catch him and that would make him look bad because he is have sexual contact with someone and the public is nosy and they like to know whats going on with the president and so it might be a good thing to publish it so that doesn’t happen. But then again I can see why the ex-girlfriend doesn’t want it published and that because she name would be in that paper and that wouldn’t look good for her. But I don’t think that it should get published because it could ruin both of their lives, and it was 28 years ago and that doesn’t matter because it was so long ago.

  5. Saulk says:

    Even though a reporter and a journalist primary obligation is to tell the truth there are some days where they shouldn't tell all the truth. Even thou it could make a good story, and people should know what that person did and what happened, they still don't need to know every little thing about him. One reason would be because the reporter, journalist, can lose his/her job over a story they were working on. Every time a man is being charge with sexual abuse people have the right to know what he did because if one day they happened to see that person in their neighborhood they wouldn't know what that person has done and they have the right to know because they can have young girls and they have the right to protect them. It can also ruin the mans life because it can still show in his record what all he has done and he could of change the way he is and became a better man and when people try to look him up they will find it and it can affect his life a lot. He wouldn't be able to get a good job and would straggle trying to fix it.

    Saul Rivera

  6. This sort of situation is one that is put on a fine line between publishing a story that might cause the seat of a Congressman or not being a huge deal in the first place. If I were put in this situation I would not publish the story. I don’t necessarily see that the provided information is very accurate. The women that he had his sexual conflict with doesn’t seem to show any complaint in talking to media. I also think that since it happened so long ago, and his record seems to be clean it doesn’t seem to me that the story is that important to publish in the first place. If he were to continue to show a reputation of sexual assaults then, in that case the story should be published and he should lose his seat in Congress. It had mentioned that his accuser from long ago didn’t seem to show any interest in pursuing the case any further. If it were a huge problem she would have made a bigger effort to share certain information. Also the congressman doesn’t seem to have any problem talking about the particular situation. If it were a big deal he would refuse to talk to any media.

  7. Ace Rivera says:

    As a journalist it is their job to be truthful in their entire stories they write about. the fact that they didn’t seem to care about the situation 28 years ago is pretty strange that the Oregonian news people are trying to investigate David Wu.

    Am sure this was only brought up because of competition because the Republican opponent used it in her campaign. David Wu did the right thing to refuse any interviews about what had happened with his ex-girlfriend. He admitted that he did something regrettable in his youth, but just because of media wanting to know it all some jumped on the story and contracted people that were friends of Wu at the Stanford University and went as far as to interview Stanford students and retired university officials and professors.

    Because the information they have collected wasn’t from David Wu or his ex-girlfriend at the time they shouldn’t have published anything, it would be considered as rumors. If it were my decision through my news cast i would go through with this story, i would try and figure out my own ways to find out some information about David Wu and publish it afterwards.