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Vol. 57, No. 1 November 2019 .pdf version
Journalistic ethics in the new era of legalized gambling
By MALCOLM MORAN
The line was out the door and up the street. It was a Sunday morning on Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis last month, a short walk from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and the line to get into an approved betting facility provided the latest reminder that Indiana had become the 13th state with legalized sports wagering. According to an ESPN.com report, 43 states plus the District of Columbia have approved sports wagering or are moving toward legislation.
Which is why I made a recommendation during a conference call of district representatives and officers last month. It is important that we add an item to the USBWA Code of Ethics, possibly after the entry that reads: Members of the media should work and act in a professional manner at all times before, during and after games.
The wording of the addition should read something like this:
USBWA members should not place bets on games they are covering.
This is not to suggest a total ban on placing legal wagers. The premise is very specific: If a member is issued a credential to cover a game, the information gained from that assignment should not be used to profit financially.
The premise is based upon the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, first approved in 1926 and revised five years ago in response to realities of the new digital order. Under the third of four principles, Act Independently, the code states that journalists should:
"Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
"Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility ..."
Here's an example that would create a compromising situation. In the 1995 championship game, UCLA against Arkansas and its "Forty Minutes of Hell" approach, the dominant pre-game storyline was a hand injury suffered by Bruin guard Tyus Edney. Each move he made during the warmup was examined and recorded. Suppose a similar situation happens next April. If you discover that it is unlikely he will play – or would be significantly limited if he tried – you could base your wager on that information. And you might be able to do it with a tap-tap-tap on your mobile device, right at your courtside seat.
That possibility would not be a good look, and the timing could be harmful. As the USBWA advocates for the creation of participation lists, regularly-issued injury reports similar to what the National Football League has provided for decades, our best chance will depend on making it clear that our intent is purely to provide reliable, accurate information for our readers.
As for the horse racing precedent: The horses don't come to the interview room.
The more serious answer is this: The News Media Ethics professor in me says that the tradition of handicappers profiting from the strategies they publish does not meet the SPJ code, coming from an era when teams regularly covered reporters' travel expenses, among other ethical breaches. Even if the bets are compartmentalized, there is at the very least a perceived conflict of interest that the writer has made an investment in one or more horses. But this is not an organization of horse racing writers.
We have an opportunity to help define the way information is communicated as more and more states introduce legalized sports wagering.
The issue goes to the core of why we are there.
Are we there to report the news?
Or are we there to profit financially from the information we obtain?
For our organization to retain its credibility, the answer can't be both.
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