A good motto to keep in mind when faced with ethical dilemmas in media, according to Investigative Editor Frank Scandale, is “If it feels icky, it probably is.”
On Nov. 21, 2015, Scandale, 58, spoke of his 35-year career in journalism to Professor Bruce Reynolds’ Media Ethics and Law class. “There’s a lot of ethics in media. There’s a lot of opportunity to be deceitful, duplicitous, and downright wrong,” he said, as he stood at the front of room 212 of Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information building.
After the Brooklyn, N.Y., native requested the class of six—one student was absent—to write down his self-proclaimed “famous line” about icky feelings, he elaborated, “If you’re debating with yourself about it, then the answer is you don’t do it. What ever it is. That’s 35-years worth of good advice. It always, always works.”
Though, in 2001, Scandale inadvertently found himself on the receiving end of an unethical decision. In January of that year, The Bergen Record hired Scandale as an editor. Nine months later, the events of 9/11 took place, and The Record acted accordingly.
Photographer Tim Franklin snapped a photograph of firefighters raising the American flag. The Record printed it in color, on the back page. “I got letters from across the country, ‘Thanks for that photo. It gives us hope.’ It was really the most symbolic, iconic moment of 9/11,” Scandale said.
The next day, The Record released it to the wire services. The following day, Scandale received a phone call from his father. After they both said they were okay, Scandale’s father mentioned The New York Post published an “amazing” picture of firefighters with a flag. Thinking it was a similar picture, The Bergen Record editor soon picked up a copy of The Post. “It’s our picture,” he said, “They stole our picture, stripped the credit off the front page, and pretended it was theirs.”
Furious, Scandale called The New York Post’s editor. “I’m pretty calm and pretty measured,” he said, “I was dropping F-bombs and calling him every name in the book. I realized I’d grown up. I was a big boy.”
Years before, another instance left Scandale bitter and upset, only this time as a result of an ethical decision. He wrote for Travel Trade Publications, Inc., in Manhattan, N.Y. At one point, editor Joe Murphy assigned Scandale a series of stories on terrorism and travel. Scandale took advantage of his sources at the Federal Investigation Bureau, who put him in touch with the Transportation Security Administration.
After a few weeks of research, Scandale completed a three-part series about warnings from federal agents and sources about how Americans needed to be careful. He finally submitted the series, but a few days passed until his boss informed Scandale of an unexpected decision. “Joe said he wasn’t going to run it. It was too scary,” Scandale said. The decision caused the writer to immediately look for a new job.
In 1980, as a rookie reporter, a circumstance forced the ’79 graduate of Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, to make an ethical decision while he worked for free at The Hillside Citizen in Union County, N.J. During that time, Scandale met Mountainside’s police commissioner, who was also a councilman. He took a liking to the young reporter and leaked information to Scandale amid a story about union negotiations. “We would go into the men’s room, and he would be in stall one and I’d be in stall two,” Scandale said, “He’d be whispering and feeding information of what was going on. I had some pretty good stories.”
The moral dilemma came about after that same source later revealed to Scandale that he worked in public relations (PR). He offered the reporter a chance to meet a client, a German immigrant, who opened a restaurant. Scandale received a free dinner in exchange for what the commissioner/councilman/and PR worker claimed would be an interesting story. “There was no story,” Scandale said, “The guy was as boring as can be. If I wrote about him, I’d have to write about everybody who owned a restaurant.”
Despite stressing over the risk of losing a source, Scandale chose to not write the story. “I was sweating because to me this was the biggest decision of my life,” he said, “For him, it was just another thing. It taught me a lesson.”
That lesson was “stick to your instinct.” According to Scandale, it’s a journalist’s job to expose things, not to be a part of them. “I grew up in a world where right was right and wrong was wrong. You didn’t do stuff just because someone offered you money,” he said, “If you’re good at what you do, the money will find you.”
Scandale’s instincts served him well as the assistant managing editor of The Denver Post, from 1990 to 2001, according to LinkedIn.com. In 2000, Scandale and The Denver Post won the Pulitzer Prize, in the Breaking News category, for covering the Columbine massacre.