Troublesome ethical issues in TV news personality targeting high school sports for cancer fundraising

The Star Tribune is going to take a lot of criticism for its story about a local TV news personality’s cancer foundation “targeting high school sporting events,” but I think this is important and legitimate cross-town journalism about journalism ethics.

The story involves longtime Minneapolis TV personality Randy Shaver who has danced back and forth between being a sports anchor and a news anchor.  He’s had cancer and he has his own cancer research foundation.

Excerpts of the story:

This past fall Shaver, a cancer survivor, and the state high school football coaches association convinced nearly 140 high schools to host “Tackle Cancer” nights to raise money for his foundation, and regularly highlighted schools on TV that did so.

“Final score tonight: Mounds View winning at home on ‘Tackle Cancer Night’, 40-0,” he told his Channel 11 viewers during an October telecast. “They did a nice job raising money. Here’s the highlights of the game.”

A “Tackle Cancer Night” brochure, featuring Shaver, suggested that schools “organize a group of lower level players or parents” to collect money at the gate, and said the team raising the most money would be featured on Shaver’s TV show. On one of his prep sports shows, Shaver told his viewers that “in Waterville, just west of Faribault, that town, that team raised $4,500 for ‘Tackle Cancer,’ mostly by selling T-shirts and sweatshirts.”

Shaver’s partnership with the Minnesota Football Coaches Association — Shaver is a member of its hall of fame — came through his close relationship with many coaches, especially Minnetonka High School football coach Dave Nelson.

“I think everybody in the metro [area] identifies with Randy and his foundation,” said Nelson, who lobbied his coaching colleagues to partner with Shaver. Nelson said he even had his football team shovel rock to help raise money for Shaver’s foundation.

Shaver, who regularly reports on high school events, maintains there is no conflict in collecting money at them.

Shaver’s foundation, which in 2009 paid Shaver’s wife $10,400 as its vice president and treasurer, has raised $4 million for cancer research since the 1990s and collected more than $118,000 during this fall’s inaugural “Tackle Cancer” campaign.

In a sidebar story, my former faculty colleague is quoted about just one slice of the ethical issues at play here.  Excerpt:

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said the arrangement crossed ethical lines. “I think it’s ethically questionable,” she said. “He’s using what is essentially a news program to promote a foundation — a charitable foundation — in which he has a stake.”

She said Shaver, like others who promote seemingly admirable causes, are often driven by the belief that “you’re on the side of the angels here, and how can anybody doubt your pureness of heart?”

There is too much cross-media cronyism that goes on too often, so I applaud the Minneapolis newspaper for writing about the activities of a leading “news” personality of a local TV station.  Frankly, I think the story barely scratches the surface of the ethical issues involved.  Some others not explored deeply (at least not yet) by the Star Tribune:

  • Shaver claims no conflict, yet his wife is paid.
  • The high school kids involved are minors.
  • Is there at least a subtle coercion involved by a TV-airtime-controlling personality recruiting kids to raise money for his foundation?
  • How, precisely, is the money that is raised actually spent?
  • What percentage of the funds raised goes to administration/marketing, etc.?

Let’s be clear about this:  we give Shaver the benefit of the doubt that he is well-intentioned and trying to do good for the worthy cause of cancer research. And, as the story points out, the local American Cancer Society is taking a similar approach: “Not to be outdone, the American Cancer Society announced it is forming a Minnesota high school coaches council and is marshaling its staff and volunteers to boost efforts to collect money at high school sporting events.” And the story notes, “Other cancer research charities — drawn in some cases by the lack of oversight at the high school level — are joining in. A Virginia-based charity, the Side-Out Foundation, is annually hosting “Dig Pink” cancer research funding events at high school volleyball games, and has more than 30 Minnesota schools signed up for events this year.”

But legitimate questions can be, should be, and have been raised by the Star Tribune about journalism ethics involved when a TV newsman uses his on-air influence to promote fundraising for his own foundation.


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