Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pulitzer-winning paper defends naming athlete who urinated during anthem at baseball game

The Bristol Herald Courier in Southwest Virginia garnered national attention last month when it was awarded the most prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on a natural-gas royalties mess, but the newspaper has recently stirred up more local attention, and controversy, by naming a juvenile athlete who urinated on the field while "The Star-Spangled Banner" was playing before a baseball game.

"It’s one of the ironies of journalism: We can spend 13 months on a controversial series that eventually wins the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and not receive a single criticism from readers," Herald Courier editor J. Todd Foster writes in an editorial explaining the decision. "And then we run a daily story on a high school athlete urinating on a baseball field during the National Anthem and the floodgates open."

The controversy arose after a May 13 story by Claire Galofaro reported reaction to the incident where the student, described as a football star and "all-around good kid from a good family," responded to a dare by lining up with his fellow Vikings for the National Anthem, unzipping his pants and urinating on the field. The story is headlined "Dare leads to ‘stupid mistake’ by Powell Valley student." Wise County Schools Superintendent Jeff Perry declined to name the student, who he said was being punished, but the Herald Courier did, citing six sources who asked to remain nameless.

"We often choose not to name juveniles charged with minor crimes," Foster writes. "This student was not charged with a crime, although he probably should have been. The decision to name him came down to the public nature of the incident. He lost all anonymity when he unzipped his pants at a baseball game and relieved himself." To "avoid piling on," Foster declined to name the student again in his follow-up column, but concluded, "Being outed in a newspaper is far less serious than what could have befallen this athlete. He could have been charged with indecent exposure and registered as a sex offender." In a voicemail left for Foster, the superintendent threatened to break relations between the school system and the paper because of the decision and said the student is suicidal over the publication of his name. (Read more)

We couldn't find any coverage of the episode on Coalfield.com, the website of The Post in Big Stone Gap and its parent weekly, The Coalfield Progress in Norton. Publisher Jenay Tate told us in an e-mail, "All newspapers make their own choices and live with the consequences of their actions."

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