The prevalence of social media, the spectacle of the World Series and some of the most awful news imaginable created a journalistic quandary Tuesday night for Fox Sports. Broadcasters and producers possessed a piece of widely known information essential to the story of Game 1. If they delivered it to viewers, they believed there existed a nontrivial chance they would also inform a man on live television of his father’s death.
Through pregame reports out of the Dominican Republic and by ESPN Deportes, Fox Sports knew the father of Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Edinson Volquez had died Tuesday afternoon. They did not know if Volquez himself knew. After internal debate that reached the highest levels of Fox Sports, they chose not to report on Volquez’s father’s death until Volquez finished pitching and they were certain Volquez had been told by family. Ultimately, they did what they thought was the right thing to do.
“The worst possible outcome in our view was for him to find out from us instead of the proper people,” said Fox sideline reporter Ken Rosenthal, who during the eighth inning eventually told viewers Volquez’s father had died. “Maybe he knew. Maybe he didn’t. We weren’t going to take the chance we were going to tell him. I’m convinced today it was the right move. I’ll always be convinced it was the right move. We have a special responsibility. We’re not Twitter.”
Some viewers and journalists argued that Fox’s first responsibility was to tell the entire story – news is news. But the Fox broadcast is fundamentally not a journalistic enterprise – the company pays Major League Baseball a fortune for the right to broadcast the World Series, and its primary mission is to deliver a baseball game. Even if it didn’t adhere strictly to journalistic standards, some experts believe they got it right Tuesday night.
“It comes down to, what is the importance of this information to the public?” said Andrew Seaman, the Ethics Committee Chair of the Society of Professional Journalists. “They were concerned about the impact it might have on him. The world necessarily doesn’t stop turning because they didn’t find out that this person passed away. It saved someone, maybe, from extraordinary anguish. It comes down to weighing the costs and benefits.”
During pregame introductions, Rosenthal received a tweet from a man in the Dominican Republic relaying that sources said Volquez’s father, Daniel, died at 63. A longtime baseball writer who is regarded as a dogged and respected reporter, Rosenthal approached a Royals official and asked if it was true. The Royals official told him Volquez didn’t yet know.
Rosenthal alerted Fox’s production truck. Meanwhile, news of Daniel Volquez’s death spread on Twitter shortly before first pitch. ESPN published a story stating that Volquez knew. Rosenthal realized a huge percentage of viewers would tune in knowing the Royals’ starter was pitching after his father died. “We’ve got an issue here,” Rosenthal remembers telling higher-ups. “We’ve got to decide what to do.”
Rosenthal discussed their next move with his producer and announcers Joe Buck, Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci.
“My instincts are always to go” with the story, Rosenthal said. “At the same time, I was having conversations with people high up on Fox about whether to go.”
Quickly, Rosenthal remembers, Verducci softened his stance. “We can’t do this until he’s out of the game,” Verducci told the group. Rosenthal trusted the instincts of Verducci, a legendary baseball writer at Sports Illustrated, implicitly. Reynolds also expressed his opinion as a former player: The broadcast would be on in the clubhouse, and if Fox reported the news Volquez would find out.
While Fox may not approach the broadcast from a journalistic perspective, Rosenthal is a reporter. He continued asking questions. Royals public relations head Mike Swanson told Rosenthal that Volquez’s wife asked the Royals not to inform Volquez about his father’s death. Adam Katz, Volquez’s agent, pleaded with Rosenthal not to report the story.
“Those are conversations in reporting you have to have,” Rosenthal said. “When do you go? How do you go? The thing I kept coming back is, we have this special responsibility.”
The discussion didn’t stop. Rosenthal spoke with Fox executives as high up as president of production and bounced the topic off journalism friends and colleagues. Between innings, Rosenthal debriefed with the announcing trio and his producer. Bosses pressured the production team to make a decision – like so many viewers, they saw the Twitter and ESPN reports and wondered why the broadcast had not mentioned it.
“It’s not an easy call when something is so widely out there and we’re not reporting it,” Rosenthal said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought Tom was absolutely right.”
If Rosenthal was writing for a newspaper or web site, he would not have thought twice about writing a news story during the game. But he recognized the difference with a TV broadcast that Volquez might hear passively, that had a much broader reach.
“It’s a different medium,” Rosenthal said. “The risk of him finding out through me was a huge risk. It’s just awful to think about. Restraint was important. Listen, I’m not one for restraint in what I do. I also understand this is a different medium. You can’t just go.”
Around the second or third inning, they came to a final decision: They would wait. Rosenthal communicated to Fox viewers through Twitter, where the news had already spread. He tweeted: “Fox Sports is aware of the news about the death of Edinson Volquez’s father but do not plan to report it on broadcast while he is in game.”
Once Volquez exited, Rosenthal kept in touch with Swanson, the Royals’ p.r. man, to make sure Volquez had spoken with family. Only then did he report on camera that Daniel Volquez had died.
“It’s a good journalistic conversation,” Rosenthal said. “It was hard. It was really hard. I felt good about it the whole time. I am sure we did the right thing. It was the humane thing to do. It’s not like reporting on a trade. This is a person’s life.”
The spread of social media often places media entities in difficult situations. Tuesday night, Fox ignored something many of its viewers had learned on Twitter. Even though the walls had been breached, Fox acted as a gatekeeper. Taking an objective stance, regardless of the ultimate choice, is something more media companies should lean toward.
“I’ve heard people say, news is news,” said Seaman, the SPJ ethics chair. “Journalists need to remember that just because things are being discussed widely, it does not prevent them from making an independent decision. Journalists still have a lot of power in deciding what audiences are exposed to news. It’s important that journalists remember that they do hold some responsibility. Just because it’s on Twitter doesn’t mean it’s necessarily responsible to put that information in front of your audience.”
More World Series: