In almost every field of work, questions of ethics will arise. Baylor helps prepare students for the inevitable, tough decisions by offering a variety of ethics classes. From environmental to business to journalism ethics, these classes force students to explore situations from an ethics-based standpoint. These situations occur outside of the classroom daily, and local journalists had to face a tough issue recently.
The issue was whether or not it was acceptable to release former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman’s name prior to his arrest on sexual assault charges last week. Some bloggers and reporters apparently had no qualms with naming the former Baylor football player while investigations were still underway. The Lariat editorial board grappled with this, and ultimately decided it was unethical to name Oakman before formal charges were made.
It should be noted that Oakman has not been found guilty in a court of law. This editorial in no way intends to weigh in on if he is innocent or not. This is a matter of media ethics, nothing more.
At 5:04 p.m. on April 7, @AlexDunlapNFL broke the news of the investigation to the Twitter world. Less than an hour later, the Waco Tribune-Herald released a story about a prominent former Baylor football player being under investigation for sexual assault. The article stated, “The Tribune-Herald is not naming the athlete because he has not been arrested.” We commend the Waco Tribune for upholding a strong ethical standard. It is especially tempting to release names when everyone else already has. However, given that Oakman was not charged with anything at that point, it was unnecessary and unfair of other media outlets to release his name.
The lines get blurred as Oakman could potentially be classified as a public figure. In the media, public figures are more subject to scrutiny. Even in the case of libel, public figures have to prove that the erroneous statement was published purposefully to hurt them. Some argued that Oakman’s position as a potential NFL draft and former Baylor Bear makes him a public figure and justifies the early release of his name.
While this argument has some merit, we find it unfair that recent college graduates can be considered public figures prior to becoming professional players.
This is not a new phenomenon for college football players. Johnny Manziel was often in the public eye. However, as a college player, Manziel was also arrested and charged by the time reports were released. This year, media outlets published reports of Manziel being under investigation for domestic violence. This is not unethical as he is now officially an NFL player, which qualifies him as a public figure.
The motivation to release Oakman’s name was clear: it was a big story developing. However, it is far better to avoid breaking a person than push for breaking a story. If the investigation would have come up void, Oakman would still have a stigma surrounding his name due to premature posting. This could have ruined the career of an innocent person. Though he has not been convicted, now that Oakman was arrested, the Lariat and the Waco Tribune have released his name. We would rather be wrong by leaving a name out than wrong by including it.