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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Breaking a Story - and a Relationship

Jessica Silliman

Three years out of Santa Clara University, Sean McKenzie was a young reporter at a national newspaper. In the spring, he was assigned to investigate street agents in the Dominican Republic who recruited and trained young baseball players in the hopes of making big profits by "selling" them to major league teams in the U.S. His reporting uncovered the uncomfortable economic logic behind the agents' work-after training the young players, they hoped to make a profit off of them by selling each player to Major League teams.

While working on the story, Sean met Carlos, a 20-year-old Dominican baseball player. As the story developed, Carlos became an important source because he knew, first-hand, how the street agents loaded young boys with powerful steroids (typically used for horses) to give them strength and power to impress the major league scouts.

A description of this practice was essential to Sean's story because several young players died as a result of the steroid use.

Carlos soon began expanding upon his own personal experience. While talking to Sean, he went into depth about how street agents worked and how his own street agent provided him with steroids, in addition to providing food for his wife and newborn child.

Sean knew that this personal information-because it was so specific-could implicate Carlos and damage any chance for him to make it into the Major Leagues-and find a better life for his family. Sean also knew Carlos didn' t know the ramifications of what he was telling him. They had developed a close relationship while he worked on the story and the interviews had become conversational-Carlos and Sean were now friends. The comfort between them enabled Carlos to open up and not hesitate with what he was telling him.

Sean worried about telling Carlos' story.

By telling his story, Sean would be able to expose the flawed system of unscrupulous agents in the Dominican Republic. His story could, potentially, cause the system to change. No longer would these agents be able to take advantage of these young players- his story could encourage greater oversight on the part of the Major League Baseball organization.

But revealing his story could also have implications for Carlos, his wife and their infant daughter: While Carlos was training as a player, his street agent was his sole provider of food and basic needs. Even if he used him as an anonymous source, Carlos would still lose the support of his street agent as the government cracked down. Revealing him could cause extreme hardship for Carlos' already struggling family.

Discussion Questions:

  • What obligation does Sean have to Carlos?
  • Should Sean be willing to sacrifice his relationship with Carlos for the greater good of the story?
  • Should Sean publish the story? Why or why not?
  • Do you think Sean could make a name for himself by breaking the story? Would this factor into your decision?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Jun 1, 2007