Rash coverage of the ‘Subway Guy’ can’t be undone

“The Subway guy,&#8221 Jared Fogle, is a world-famous sandwich promoter, but his charity, the Jared Foundation, is a modest operation, and its executive director and sole employee, Russell Taylor, drew moderate coverage when he was arrested in April on child pornography charges. But earlier this week, police pursuing the Taylor investigation showed up to search Fogle’s suburban Indianapolis home, sparking news coverage with an incendiary implication.

“IN A MEDIA FIRESTORM,” blared a front-page headline in Wednesday’s Indianapolis Star, above a perp-style photograph of Fogle. It was an oddly self-referential headline for a newspaper that had pounced on the news about Fogle despite his so-far-vague connection to Taylor’s alleged crimes. While details about legal facts remain scarce, local and national media may have been indiscreet in fanning the flames over Fogle.

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It should go without saying that the charges against Taylor are deeply disturbing, which is exactly why coverage that suggests Fogle’s guilt, or even guilt-by-association, requires caution. Fogle’s lawyer says he is cooperating with investigators and, for now, hasn’t been charged with any crime. Subway, meanwhile, has chosen a middle ground — suspending but not severing its relationship with “The Subway Guy,” who lost 235 pounds as an Indiana University student on a sandwich-and-exercise diet. Since first appearing in commercials 15 years ago, Fogle has earned millions from the partnership, and founded his charity in 2004 to support child obesity programs.

Fogle is a celebrity — especially in his home state — and it’s reasonable for news outlets to monitor the investigation with keen intensity. But with investigators tight-lipped about what they were looking for Tuesday, the rest of the media jumped to suggest answers.

On Wednesday afternoon there were four Fogle-related stories on the indystar.com homepage, including one headlined, “Subway’s pitchman Jared Fogle made hundreds of presentations to children.” It went on to include anecdotes such as, “In March 2014, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported he told elementary students about his journey to fitness before hawking a program Subway was launching. Children were given sheets of paper to log their time in front of digital devices and TV, exercise and their eating habits. Participating students got a free Subway sandwich and were entered into a contest for up to $1,000 in gift cards.”

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Publishing such a piece is startlingly presumptive. Fogle’s work advocating child wellness would only be concerning if he were involved with Taylor’s pornography crimes, and for now that’s baseless. Another Star headline online wondered how Fogle will “weather” the FBI investigation. Nothing in the article responds to that question, because there’s nothing official to go on. To be fair, the Star’s print edition the next day used language that was more restrained than its website.

There’s no way to tell where the story will go from here. If Fogle is eventually charged with a crime, it still wouldn’t vindicate coverage that drew readers to that conclusion before facts arrived to support it.

Jeff Taylor, the Star’s editor, said he doesn’t take the coverage responsibilities lightly. “Every one of us in this newsroom recognizes that we have a very dramatic story that’s happening in our market, something that needs to be covered, and that we’re going to cover thoroughly and fairly,” Taylor said. “But, at the same time, by its nature, it’s a sensational story. I think we have a responsibility to follow these things through. If it turns out that there’s never any charge and he is simply a cooperating witness, then we need to make sure we come back around and say that in a significant way on the front page.”

Taylor wouldn’t comment on whether his reporters had information that would lead them to believe that Fogle was being investigated himself on possible charges, as some of the coverage could have been read.

Other outlets in Indiana and across the country covered the search of Fogle’s home, though none as prominently. Two nearby dailies, The Times of Hamilton County and The Greensburg Daily News, did not mention Fogle on page one. The Star Press in Muncie, a sister of Gannett’s Star, used the Star’s story on its front page. CBS4 in Indianapolis chose an especially misleading Web headline on Tuesday, when details were still emerging, “Authorities raid home of Subway spokesman Jared Fogle in child pornography investigation,” making no mention until the fourth paragraph that Fogle wasn’t the subject of that investigation.

The Associated Press’s report is an example of proper thoroughness with restraint. It ledes by noting how the raid “is casting a glaring spotlight” on Fogle’s relationship to his foundation director, a fair summary of what this week’s development really amounts to.

The Star’s page one follow-up Thursday questioned whether Fogle’s relationship with Subway can recover from all this publicity, “even if he is exonerated.” The article quotes a marketing professor at Northwestern, who explains, “The longer that people mention Jared in the same breath as child pornography, that’s a huge problem for Subway.”

Fogle’s career will be ruined, deservedly, if he turns out to be more than a bystander. What’s unfortunate is that, at this point in the hullaballoo, the facts may not matter. When a sensitive, ongoing development prompts reactions, and reactions to reactions, responsible journalists must know when to hold fire.

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Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt