The reporter who hit ‘send’

Let me take you back to the morning after the election last fall when Maine voters overturned that state’s same-sex marriage law. You’re a veteran newspaper reporter named Larry Grard. You’re a Christian. You work for the Morning Sentinel, part of a chain of papers owned by MaineToday Media. Your company editorialized in support of same-sex marriage, but you disagree.

You show up at work that post-election Wednesday — apparently after sleeping very little — and your fuse is a little short. Maybe a whole lot short. Your crank up your e-mail, and a news release from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization, is waiting. You read this statement, and it offends you:

“Although we lost our battle in Maine, we will not allow the lies and hate — the foundation on which our opponents built their campaign — to break our spirits. We are on the right side of history and we will continue this fight,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.

How do you respond? Remember, you chose a profession where you’re supposed to keep your opinion to yourself. Particularly on the job. But … this really nags at you. So, you log into a personal e-mail account and fire up a response. You hit the send button on this message:

“Who are the hateful, venom-spewing ones? Hint: Not the Yes on 1 crowd. You hateful people have been spreading nothing but vitriol since this campaign began. Good riddance!”

Your boss finds out about the e-mail. You’re fired. And before long, you’re making national news, claiming you’re the victim of religious discrimination. But your boss insists that the firing was not about same-sex marriage or religious discrimination, but rather a serious breach of the company’s employee and journalistic expectations.

The Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents Morning Sentinel newsroom employees, files a grievance on your behalf, saying that the union contract calls for progressive discipline when dealing with an employee. The union negotiates what it considers a satisfactory settlement on your behalf. But you have not accepted the offer.

Instead, as the Bangor Daily News reported this week, you take this approach:

Now, Grard, who said he simply was responding to what he felt was hate speech directed at Christians, is fighting his dismissal with the help of two groups committed to preserving religious rights.

The Catholic League of New York, the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization, and the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission of California both are providing counsel to Grard as he pursues legal options.

Grard’s attorney, Michael Pospis with the New York law firm the Boyd Group, said he recently submitted paperwork with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the first step toward filing a formal federal lawsuit. Grard also has filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission.

“We look forward to pursuing all available state and federal remedies in light of what appears to be a textbook case of religious discrimination,” Pospis said in an e-mail Monday.

So, after all that buildup, here’s my take: This case is about journalism, not religion. In a traditional model of journalism, news reporters shouldn’t do stupid things like send opinionated e-mails to a national gay rights organization. This reporter screwed up.

Here’s my other take: When a veteran reporter is fired for a one-time lapse that just happens to clash with his own paper’s editorial position, there is ample reason to be skeptical and seek full disclosure of the facts and circumstances of the firing. In other words, is this case really about journalism, not religion?

On the journalism side, the reports I have read fail to make clear whether Grard actually covered the same-sex marriage election for his newspaper. If he did, how fair was his reporting? Could an independent observer spot any bias? Is there any indication that his personal beliefs influenced what he wrote? Similarly, is there any evidence that the paper’s editorial position influenced news coverage — by Grard or others? Regardless of his beat, what kind of reputation does Grard have among sources and readers? Up to this point, was his work respected? Does he have a reputation as a hot head? Or did he send one boneheaded e-mail and pay severely for it?

On the religion side, what evidence — besides his firing — can Grard produce to support his claim of discrimination? How vehemently did the paper’s publisher and top officials support the same-sex marriage law? Did any of them contribute financially to the gay rights campaign? As for Grard, how openly has he practiced his faith, and what ramifications, if any, has that created for him on the job? Has religion always been important to Grard, or did he find it — in a hurry — after sending the e-mail?

This impresses me as an important story — for the worlds of journalism and religion — and one that deserves additional scrutiny by reporters.

It’s likely that this won’t be the last such case that we read about, as the Bangor story noted:

Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine who teaches media ethics, said Grard’s case may become more common in ever-changing newsrooms.

“In the era of Facebook and blogging and multiple e-mail address, reporters have to be extra sensitive in interacting with audiences,” he said. “Reporters never used to have the kind of direct communication with their audience that they have today.”

Socolow said Grard likely erred by engaging with a reader the way he did but also said, “Reporters need freedom to do the job.”

What’s your take? Please, as always, stick to the journalistic issues in your comments.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Darrell Turner

    A key point may be in what Tom Bell of the Portland Newspaper Guild highlighted — whether the newspaper had a progressive discipline policy that should have been followed. That makes it an employment law issue. The issue of journalists expressing their own views about controversial issues is another matter. Newspapers have taken a variety of stances on it, sometimes revolving around whether the reporter covers the issues involved and sometimes revolving around whether there could be a perception of conflict of interest even if there is no such conflict in reality.

    Still another complicating factor is that the paper says Grard was using the newspaper’s equipment to send the e-mail. When I was a writer and copy editor for a daily newspaper, the rule was that you had to get approval from your supervisor for free-lancing or other expressions of personal opinion and that you couldn’t use the newspaper’s equipment for doing this.

    All this indicates that there may be more factors involved in Grard’s case than religious discrimination by the paper.

  • Marie

    Though it is about journalism, I see it as an employment issue and a question of if and where a worker has a right to publically disagree with his/her employer. Also your comment “Remember, you chose a profession where you’re supposed to keep your opinion to yourself. Particularly on the job.” Feh, I see a lot of bias in my local Washington Post, so the keeping one’s opinion to oneself isn’t really practiced unless the opinion is in sync with the editors. And would it have been better if he sent off the email from home?

  • Bobby

    And would it have been better if he sent off the email from home?

    In some ways, yes. That would have eliminated the employer’s position that he was acting in his capacity as a journalist on work time (see Darrell’s comment above). But no, that would not have eliminated some of the other issues discussed.

  • Chris Bolinger

    It’s not about journalism or religion. It’s about politics.

  • Judy Harrow

    I need to say that I am not a journalist, so I am not familiar with the specific professional ethics of journalism. Also, I am a fervent supporter of marriage equality. I am also a fervent supporter of freedom of thought and speech, and that goes for people I disagree with as well as for my allies.

    Was Mr. Grard in any way giving the impression that he was speaking for his newspaper, or was he stating his own personal opinion on his own personal email account?

    If it was the former, then the question is whether his action was egregious enough to justify over-riding the progressive discipline policy. I would imagine some things are, and misrepresenting the organization might be one of them.

    If it was the latter, then all he was doing was using the newspaper’s equipment for personal purposes. About as serious as stealing a paper clip. I mean, would they have fired him if he had written a “good morning” message to his Mom or something like that?

  • DoctorMike

    “…So, you log into a personal e-mail account…”

    That seems to be the key to the whole issue. The fact that I am a member of a certain profession does not change my rights as an individual. If my actions act as a scandal or embarrassment to my employer, they can terminate me. If, however, we have reached the point where an opinion, given in response to another opinion, without vulgar or obscene language, without direct or implied threats of violence or slander, done as a personal statement without relation to the employer, counts as “scandal or embarrassment,” then I think a line has been crossed which removes us from the list of free countries.

    To claim that reporters are required to be unopinionated is preposterous in the face of the reality we observe every day in perusing the news.

  • Jerry

    Here’s a question – has anyone reading this NEVER done something stupid in the heat of the moment that you regretted later and wish you could turn the clock back? For me at least, there are too many such incidents. And it’s especially worse when the internet is ever available for such stupid actions.

    One issue that is not about religion, per se, is the zero tolerance, zero forgiveness culture that we’re living in right now. But it really does have a religious implication because of what all scriptures say about forgiveness especially if someone repents his misdeed.

    On the other hand, I have not read anything that says Grard realized that he crossed the line and should not have sent that email and therefore publically apologized for unprofessional conduct. Did I miss that? If not, then a natural conclusion is that he does not feel he did anything wrong.

    What I expect for a reporter is to uphold the highest standards of reporting and I would measure Grard’s initial deed and subsequent action against that standard. Google led me to which has a three points that appear applicable here:

    — Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.

    —Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
    — Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

  • Jeff

    I think he could fairly have been disciplined, but termination just for what’s described here — it’s employment law, as someone else said. Most workplaces, you can’t sustain an action on an employee with an effective work record for one error or lapse of judgment.

  • Ed Dodds

    Journalistic objectivity is one of those myths that only folks from journalism schools believe in; it’s right up there with the financial services “Chinese fire wall” . Reporters are persuaders–they either make their case or they don’t. In terms of employment, I would posit that the huge move toward personal business ownership which is taking place in the US (in part by the systematic firing older white guys because of their higher salaries and costly healthcare insurance) is a reaction to the realization that employers aren’t objective either. The rise of citizen journalism is another indicator that the gulf between the editorial and advertising section isn’t as solid as editors would readers to believe.

    We all have agendas–I’ve just found it a lot easier recently to have it out their on a blog or facebook (pull) vs. email (push) where folks can decide to listen or not. My personal blog’s been visited by 170 countries so apparently having a “voice” is possible, if not always profitable.

  • Dan Lower

    Serious question:

    Would this case be different ethically if he had sent the e-mail from home?

  • Kate Shellnutt

    I’m a religion blogger, and every week I get e-mails from organizations, leaders, readers and commenters that I find offensive, hateful and rude.

    My response always begins: Thank you for reading. I appreciate you taking the time to share your concern.

    And if I don’t have anything else nice to say… it’ll end there.

  • Bobby

    Kate, I’d say your policy is a good one, although in my own work, I occasionally don’t even respond with that much if it is too over-the-top on the offensive/hateful/rude scale. On an unrelated note, I enjoy stopping by your blog on the Houston Chronicle site from time to time.

    Dan, you asked:

    Would this case be different ethically if he had sent the e-mail from home?

    I think that sending it from home changes some of the legalities. I don’t think it makes it any different ethically. That’s just my personal opinion, FWIW.

  • dalea

    Doctor Mike@#6 says:

    To claim that reporters are required to be unopinionated is preposterous in the face of the reality we observe every day in perusing the news.

    I am much more comfortable with a journalist stating an opinion up front so I can be a bit more familiar with where he is starting from than with impartial journalists.

    Firing for a first offense is simply wrong and probably not legal. I think he should be reinstated.

  • Bobby

    I think that sending it from home changes some of the legalities.

    A quick addition: That’s assuming, of course, that he doesn’t do so on a company laptop. :-)

  • Dave

    This story is about labor law — progressive discipline vs prompt dismissal — up to a point. That point is the one at which Grard claims religious discrimination. Now it’s a religion story, over the atmosphere at his place of work. The burden of proof will be on Grard to demonstrate a hostile work environment. He probably should have taken the settlement the Guild negotiated.

  • Peterk

    “you log into a personal e-mail account and fire up a response. ”

    was it a yahoo, gmail or hotmail account? does the paper have a policy about accessing personal email accounts from company computers?

    I could understand the outrage if the reporter had responded from his company email account, but if he used a personal email account then he is expressing his opinion. And firing him for his personal opinion is just wrong. would he have been fired if he had said this same thing face to face?

  • gfe

    If I pulled such a stunt on the job (and I’m a copy editor rather than a reporter), I’d expect some response from my employer. That sort of thing is uncalled for and obviously goes beyond merely stating a political viewpoint.

    I don’t know what the Guild negotiated (and the Guild apparently isn’t saying), but an acceptable result would depend on the factors in the original post. Was this his beat? Does this make it harder for him to do his job? An appropriate response could range from “no harm, no foul” to a brief suspension. But immediate dismissal for someone who has been working for the newspaper well over a decade is extreme.

  • Mattk

    I don’t see why what the report did is a big deal. Was he claiming to speak for the newspaper?

  • Dan Crawford

    The Morning Sentinel’s firing of the reporter is no different than the outrageous bullying on the same issue that characterized the California Prop 8 campaign. Just because a newspaper is the bully is no justification for its behavior. Not that the Morning Sentinel and its parent corporation are models of journalistic competence and ethics to begin with.

  • Passing By

    It was interesting that the newspaper also discontinued his wife’s bi-weekly column. That throws a lot of light on his situation and bears further investigation. One might wish the newspaper’s publisher would get some of the “tough questions” that get so much play. Sometimes.

    Tangential, maybe, but this Morning Sentinal article on a similar subject raises another set of interesting questions.

    I read every link, and I agree there is precious little from Grard about his religion. Certainly his email reply wasn’t religious in content and most of the religious verbiage comes from his advocates.

  • Martha

    Should he have done it? No. Doing this from his place of work, in response to an email sent to his work address and not as a private person, is at the root of it. Probably would help if we had a copy of the company policy on internet usage to see the details, though.

    Is he making it worse for himself? Sounds like it, from what the paper quoted says: “Now, Grard, who said he simply was responding to what he felt was hate speech directed at Christians, is fighting his dismissal with the help of two groups committed to preserving religious rights.”

    This is making a mountain out of a molehill; I can understand that he feels badly treated and that he is anxious about what this does to his reputation when seeking work on other papers, but making it a crusade is not going to help.

    Cynical reaction on my part? If he’d fired up his email account to say “Totes agreement! Yay you!”, would we be seeing this case? Would the paper have said “Sorry, do this kind of thing on your own time and don’t involve us”? Of course, had he said that, the HRC crowd wouldn’t have complained to his boss, and we’d never have heard anything. Any cases of a pro-gay marriage journo getting the boot from an anti-gay marriage paper for this same kind of thing, just as a matter of interest?

  • Ben

    I find it sad so many people don’t think a journalist could be impartial when it’s their job description. Do you doubt that a lawyer could argue a case in which she personally believes differently?

  • adam

    It’s already been said, but the issue would have been avoided if he would have had the foresight to use his personal email – and, also, probably use his own home personal computer. Using a company email does somewhat give the impression of speaking for the company (if that is indeed what he used.)

    It certainly wasn’t ethical, but I’m curious if there weren’t other similar circumstances that weren’t mentioned before this incident. Otherwise, his employer was obviously acting legally in his firing. His lawsuit is pretty frivolous – stating an opinion on a political issue is not tantamount to religious discrimination just because you base your political opinion on your religious beliefs.

  • Passing By

    Ben -

    It is sad that the bad acts of a few nullify the good work of the many. Ask a Catholic priest.

    Then ask yourself why journalism is held in such disrepute today. This website is helping me balance my own cynicism toward the profession in matters of religion.

    When I was a kid (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), the cities where we lived generally had two newspapers, one relatively “liberal” and one fairly “conservative”. Think: Detroit, with the Free Press and the News, or Dallas, with the Times Herald and the Morning News. My parents always took and read both papers. I think Detroit may still have both, but Dallas has only the DMN, which is, in my opinion, a mess. It was better in the days before they had to pretend to be balanced and we had a choice. Actually we have a choice today, thanks to the internet. In fact, we have lots of choices and the biases are out there for every to see, without an editor deciding for me what I should read.

  • Tyson K

    He was using a personal email. The article noted that. As many have noted, religious discrimination may be a stretch here, but if this was a first and an isolated incident then it should seem obvious that firing was the first response.