Ethical situations involving 'shooting the messenger'
by Thomas L. Morgan
In the small community of the Brainerd Lakes area, where Brainerd Daily Dispatch Sports Editor Mike Bialka grew up, many people know him, read his sports columns and see him at places like the local grocery store.
Bialka said that his main goal is to gather relevant sports news, and to write about it in an unbiased fashion.
“Ethics are all about pursing a difficult story the right way,�? he said.
As technology, mass media, types of news, and consumers change, ethics — and more specifically the definition of objectivity — has also mutated.
Objectivity, the now misconstrued term, was once meant to mean verification in method, rather than “truth�? in reporting. “The journalist is not objective, but his method can be. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim,�? said authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in the book, “The Elements of Journalism.�?
When it comes to Bialka’s ethics, it’s all about objective methods and objective processes of newsgathering.
That’s where Bialka’s ethical story really began: With a minor league baseball team called the Brainerd Bears, which played in the competitive North Central League. This league is a summer league for young men who had college eligibility left and who wanted to play competitive summer ball.
This was a huge deal to a small community like the Brainerd Lakes Area. The town fund-raised hard to get the resources necessary to build the beautiful ballpark that was created.
Looking back, the mayor of Brainerd at the time felt, “A minor league baseball team in our community could be very beneficial, economically, socially, and for entertainment.�?
The team was in operation for the entire 1994 season and part of the season in ’95 until the North Central League disbanded.
Bialka covered the team on a daily basis in the summer, reporting wins, losses, player achievements, attendance, and things of that nature.
Bialka had an information “in�? with a source at the ball club. He was very good acquaintances with the general manager of the ball club, late Jon Happajoki. According to Bialka, in a story he wrote about Hopper, as he was known, in the Brainerd Dispatch “Hopper made sure that I was informed on what was happening.�?
When suspicion grew that the team was facing possible financial struggles, Bialka was one of the few who began gathering relevant information on the story. Bialka talked to owners, general managers, food and concession stand employees, and public citizens.
However, before Bialka could report his findings, the press release ran that the team had financially crumbled and the ball club could no longer operate at the rate at which they were achieving.
Bialka had an ethical dilemma. Reporting on a failing sports team in his own community that could have negative economic effects had to be considered along with objectively pursuing his occupation of gathering and reporting relevant local sports news.
Not only that, but Bialka was also acquaintances with owners, advertising managers, and employees of the ball club.
“It was hard to write a truthful story that had negative consequences, possibly to my friendships, my reputation in the community, but most notably, writing a negative story about an issue that could negatively effect the economic make-up of the area,�? he said.
Bialka, being a well-trained journalist, balanced his ethical dilemma, and took an objective method to gather the news.
Because the finances of the team were private records, Bialka “Couldn’t get his hands on the club’s, or owner’s finances.�?
After his objective newsgathering process was under way — talking to anyone he could that had credible information about the team — Bialka compiled his story.
“Backlash�? occurred, according to Bialka, after the printing of his story. It wasn’t the facts, or the point of view the story took that caused the reaction. It was the many individuals involved with the team and citizens in and around the community who blamed the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, and Bialka, for the team’s problems.
Shooting the messenger, as it is called, happens quite often in journalism, especially in smaller communities.
In an article published in the American Journal Review, titled “Shooting the Messenger,�? Lori Robertson writes about a small community in Marion County, Kan., that encountered actual violence in a similar situation.
Bill Meyer, the publisher of the weekly Marion County Record, was a “Bit surprised when the windows of the paper’s office became targets of someone wielding a pellet gun….Police in the small town of Marion, population 2,000, believe the incident stems from an article about a woman who had left her children alone in the park.�?
“This marked the second time Meyer has seen the paper’s windows shot out.�?
Although the backlash that Mike Bialka and the Brainerd Daily encountered from the Brainerd Bears’ story was non-violent, the point remains. Even when accurate and truthful stories are written, journalists still get blamed.
“This situation was very hard for me,�? Bialka said. To be on the wrong end of the blame about a failing team that he cared for, especially when he felt his story “had no impact on the team’s already unfortunate end.�?
It should be noted that since the Bears’ fallout, two teams have gone on to fold in Brainerd for a “variety of financial and attendance reasons,�? according to a Bialka article in the Dispatch called “Northwoods League May Return.�?
These continued occurrences of repeated failures show that possibly some other mediating influences and choices caused the detriment to the team.
“Sometimes in my job I find myself in this sort of difficult dilemma,�? Bialka said, “where I must step back, and try to truthfully tackle a difficult story from an angle of an observer through objectivity.�?
“This was one of the hardest stories to write, and one of the most difficult ethical situations I have faced in my profession,�? Bialka said.
Bialka knowing he did the correct thing in writing the story, stuck to his morals, his training, and followed a process of verification and objectivity. He stepped back, took an objective approach to his newsgathering process, and was able to create a verified, creditable story that whether or not some didn’t like it, was the truth.
According to Bialka’s same article, “Since the Brainerd Bears Fallout; the Brainerd Bobcats ceased operations just 18 games into the 1996 season. The Brainerd Mighty Gulls played from 1998-2002, and the Blue Thunder has been in operation since the 2005 season.�?
Robert E. Olson (Buff), the former mayor of Brainerd, was in office during period of the construction of the park, the startup of the ball club, and of course the ball club’s fallout. Olson, now 82, and current city council member, had many insights to the club’s struggle.
“I questioned from the start, how a pro (minor) league baseball team would do in a community like the Brainerd Lakes Area,�? he said. “I was very positive about the impacts that a ball club ‘could’ have in our community, but was wary about our support due to the environment.�?
“Brained having an environment filled with so many outdoor activities was the problem,�? he said. “Citizens and tourists just didn’t give the support that the baseball organization needed.�?
“The competition was great, the facilities were perfect, but the citizens in the community could not get off the lakes, campgrounds, and golf courses to support our local minor league team,�? he added.
“This is why minor league baseball organizations continue to fail in our area. It’s not poor management, or lack of advertising, it’s the fact that the Brainerd Area is filled with too many other enjoyable out-door activities.
As to the backlash that the Brainerd Daily and Bialka faced after the team’s fallout, Olson said: “That although the antagonism that the paper faced was irrelevant, people in the community did not want to acknowledge the fact that this was the result of the lack of support from the community that caused the inability of the team to operate. The paper (and Mike) were just a scapegoat that individuals who had been involved used.�?
In an article titled “Readers Find Truth Hard to Handle,�? I think the author Mike Seate sums the “shooting the messenger�? idea the best in describing a similar situation in a different community. “More than a week later, calls continue to come in…I believe so many people were upset over that column because nobody hates a reflection more than someone unprepared to see it,�? speaking of social problems in his native Pittsburg area.