Media: ...While other parts of the paper go to the dogs | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Media: ...While other parts of the paper go to the dogs

While Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffers wait to discover who's staying and who's going, the paper itself may be going to the dogs. The co-publisher's dog, anyway.

On Dec. 1, P-G staffer Linda Fuoco wrote a story about the benefits of dogs using treadmills for exercise. The story featured a photo of a 6-year-old basset hound named Clementine and a quote from a person known simply as "her East End owner."

Although the story didn't mention it, the owner in question was the paper's co-publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block.

"She is our dog and she is wonderful," Block tells City Paper. "If people really would like to know who owns Clementine, then you can tell them. I'm not unwilling to acknowledge being Clementine's owner."

Block said he didn't believe that the dog's owner "needs to be disclosed, because it's not inherently part of the story.

"Does [not] revealing the owner's identity subtract from the meaning of the story that a dog in shape and whose weight is under control has a stronger cardiovascular system?" Block asks. "That's the whole point of this. It's a veterinary medical article."

But some readers thought that was the story's least interesting angle. On Dec. 7, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in its gossip column "Whispers" -- which is itself penned anonymously -- also surmised that it was Block's dog plodding along on that mini treadmill.

"Why would an anonymous dog owner be so reticent to have his or her name associated with a harmless feature on canine physical fitness?" the Trib ponders. "Our educated guess is that it's because John Robinson Block, the P-G's co-publisher and editor-in-chief, just happens to own a basset hound named Clementine.

"Should P-G readers ... be howling over this lack of transparency in what appears to be a co-publisher's vanity story?"

Block says he didn't make the decision to omit his name. But when he saw a proof of the article prior to publication, he says it didn't occur to him to ask why he wasn't identified, because he didn't think it was relevant. David Shribman, P-G executive editor, declined to comment for this story.

Block says the Trib itself ran a picture of Clementine on the front page of its Trib PM afternoon paper in March 2005. The article was about singles using pets as a tool to meet people. The dog was used to illustrate the point of the story, Block says, and he was not identified in that piece.

However, the woman walking the dog -- a professional dog-walker -- was identified and quoted heavily in the story. Clementine's appearance on the cover was also identified in a photo caption on an inside page.

"I would encourage you to spend your time covering more important media issues than this," Block urged City Paper.

Patrick Parsons, a Don Davis Professor of Ethics in the College of Communications at Penn State University, says while there is no "hard and fast rule" about disclosure, it was warranted here.

"On the one hand, this was just a doggie story," says Parsons. "There is no issue here of anyone being harmed by the lack of disclosure." Still, he says, there is a "bigger issue" at stake.

"In recent years, the press has tried to back off the use of undisclosed sources," Parsons says. "It's more about transparency and a paper's credibility."

Parsons says papers have significantly narrowed the use of undisclosed sources, only using them "when it's really important and you can't get the information any other way."

In this case, Parsons says the P-G should have tried to get the information from other sources. "It's best if you can get other sources to go on the record and if you can't, especially when dealing with a trivial story like this, you might just want to bag it," he says. "And if you can't find other people to talk for the story, that may say a lot about whether it's even worth doing.

"But, if you can't find other sources and you still want to run the story, then you need to just say it's the publisher's dog and attribute his quotes. Yes, it's just a story about a doggie treadmill, but this is not a habit you want to get into."

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