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Schefter stepped over line with showing JPP's medical records

ESPN's Adam Schefter was within rights to report information on amputation, but didn't need to show the report to tell the news.

YOU MIGHT THINK journalistic integrity would be a simple concept - something covered almost immediately in Journalism 101 and then beaten into every reporter's head forever after.

To be honest, on some level that is exactly what happens.

The problem is that "journalistic integrity," just like regular integrity, sometimes falls into those hazy shades of gray that do not present a universal definition.

In almost every case, journalistic integrity comes down to a few opinions decided by an individual reporter and the directors of the news entity that person works for.

Something viewed as pushing the envelope by one news organization could be no big deal by another, or way out of bounds by a third.

Obviously, ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter did not think anything was morally wrong about posting an image of the medical chart of New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on his Twitter account on Wednesday.

It was already reported that Pierre-Paul had seriously injured his hand while handling fireworks over the weekend, but Schefter presented more details by tweeting, "ESPN obtained medical charts that show Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul had right index finger amputated today" and showing a picture of the medical record.

Almost immediately, the picture of Pierre-Paul's private medical chart created a firestorm about whether Schefter did the moral, ethical and legal thing.

Since 1996, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act has been around to protect an individual's private medical information.

It is why you have to stand behind that line at the desk in the doctor's office or a pharmacy when another person is in front of you.

Schefter got the information knowing his source illegally obtained it.

His job as a journalist - heck, my job as a journalist - is to obtain information. Many times, that is information particular individuals do not want made public.

From that standpoint, Schefter simply did his job. Since he was not the one who stole Pierre-Paul's medical chart, many people more knowledgeable than I am have chimed in that HIPAA laws do not apply to him or ESPN.

That is not really the issue being discussed in this column.

This is not about whether Schefter and ESPN did an illegal thing. It is about whether they did the right thing.

That is where things get murky. That is where opinions divide.

In this case, I would not have shown Pierre-Paul's private medical records. I think it was legitimate news that Pierre-Paul had his finger amputated, and I see nothing wrong with Schefter reporting that. I compliment him for getting that story first.

I do, however, think Schefter crossed the line of integrity by posting the photo of private medical records he had to know were illegally obtained.

Other than sensationalism, I see no purpose in posting an image of the medical records. Even if not technically illegal, I think most people question the morality of Schefter's actions.

To me, the benefit would not be worth having people question my moral base and, thus, affecting my credibility as a journalist.

Still, I said earlier my opinions were about this case.

I emphasize that, because I acknowledge there could be a situation in which I would release information, even if I knew it was obtained in an illegal or highly questionable manner.

As a sports columnist, I am not likely to be put in this situation, but if I had possession of illegally obtained documents that, upon release, could save or protect someone's life or help negate a threat against the United States, I would release them to the public.

It is all a matter of degree, which is why I said judging Schefter's decision falls into those murky shades.

If we can agree he was doing his job by gathering information, the only debate is about whether he went too far in his presentation of that information.

Defining "pressing information" is a subjective process, and that brings the human mindset into play.

We are not a homogenous species with a group thought process. We all think and form opinions based on our individual experiences.

In many cases, subtle differences in perception can lead to major differences in what is considered right or wrong.

Perhaps to Schefter, publishing the medical records was necessary to confirm his story. Of course, Pierre-Paul's next public appearance also would confirm that.

Ultimately, the people who deal with Schefter will determine whether he crossed a line.

He is successful as an NFL insider because he builds relationships and establishes some level of trust.

If what he did to Pierre-Paul causes his sources to question his trustworthiness, Schefter will suffer in the end.

Trust, just like integrity, is graded on an individual basis.

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

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