The Ron Heilmann investigation controversy is one of those journalism ethics quandries we sometimes have to wrestle with here in the newsroom. I'm sure many of you are wondering why an Eau Claire television station is breaking the story that the Oshkosh School Board conducted an investigation into Heilmann's conduct--instead of WOSH or some other local news source. Today I will try to answer your questions.
Let's start with what we knew. Did we know that allegations had been leveled against Dr Heilmann? Yes. Did we know the nature of the allegations? Yes. Did we know that the school board discussed the allegations in closed session back in March? Yes. Did we know that the school board got the results of the investigation that same month and found there was no basis to the allegations? Yes.
So why then did we not do a story? Well here's what we did not know: Who was the person leveling the allegations? We never got a straight answer on that from any of our sources. What were the details of the allegations? Those varied depending upon who you talked to--and that sends up a red flag, as wildly different stories on what may have happened lead you to believe this is rumor and not fact. And since the nobody was able to tell us the source of the original allegation, it's a bit difficult to get the correct story. Add to that the fact that not a single person wanted to go on the record or be quoted for a possible story and you are left with no ethical legs to stand on.
The Eau Claire TV story itself contains little in the way of actual factual matter on the investigation itself. Their angle was more toward the fact that the Eau Claire school board was not aware of the investigation while it was interviewing Heilmann for Superintendent--and that Oshkosh School Boardmembers didn't say anything about it either.
There are some who will claim that the local media was trying to cover up for Heilmann--keeping a possibly embarrassing story out of the public eye. I can assure you that was not the case here in the WOSH newsroom. We have more than a few awards hanging on the wall for stories that did more than just embarrass local officials. I had a similar situation come up while I was working in the Marinette-Menominee area--an accusation leveled by students against a superintendent. In that case, I did go with the story--as the two girls claiming the Menominee Superintendent was verbally and physically abusive toward them made their accusations just inches away from my microphone during the Public Comment session of the School Board meeting. In that case the board found no grounds for the accusations and cleared the superintendent--who left for another job a few months later. But there we had people willing to go on the record with their accusations and the alleged details--not just whispers and innuendo that are the grist mill for the tabloids and the blogs.