By showing up in a swimsuit along with her kids, WMAQ-Ch. 5 reporter Amy Jacobson was treading uncertain waters without dipping so much as a toe in the backyard pool of Craig Stebic, whose wife's disappearance Jacobson had been covering.
If Jacobson was hoping to make a big journalistic splash, she instead suffered the self-inflicted sting of a belly flop as her bid to ingratiate herself with a potential source made its own headlines, including this one, heralding her exit from Channel 5.
aired and posted online video of her and her children at the same Plainfield residence that Lisa Stebic was moving to evict her estranged husband from on April 30, the day she vanished.
A memo to WMAQ news staff Tuesday announced Jacobson's negotiated exit, effective immediately, from the NBC-owned station, where she had worked since 1996.
"The last couple of days have been tough on everyone," Vice President of News Frank Whittaker and News Director Camille Edwards wrote.
Earlier newspaper reports said Channel 5 was reviewing her conduct and that Channel 2 had tape of Jacobson's Friday visit to Stebic's home. Then Channel 2 made the tape public.
The videotape was neither bought nor shot by a freelancer, said WBBM News Director Carol Fowler, who did not want to say more about its origin.
It is not clear whether Jacobson ultimately was sacrificed because she crossed a journalistic ethical line that says it's OK to be friendly with newsmakers but not really friends or because the station believed the incident was destined to forever brand her in this town more for the news she made than all the news she broke. Station officials would not discuss the matter.
The situation is reminiscent of the 1988 incident in which Giselle Fernandez, then a reporter for WBBM, was contacted by south suburban drug dealer John Cappas about covering his surrender to authorities. Between their interview and federal agents, she went on a speed boat with him and bought him a final pizza, drawing lasting widespread criticism.
"Amy's contributions as a reporter over the last 10 years are numerous," the WMAQ memo said. "Her hustle and passion for news have given us an edge on many top stories. She worked long hours on many days, and we appreciate all she's done."
It's those same traits that this time got Jacobson in trouble.
Jacobson said Tuesday she was not able to comment on the matter. Her representatives, including agent attorney Todd Musburger, did not respond to repeated calls.
Sources said Jacobson told her Channel 5 bosses she was trying to gain the confidence of Stebic's sister by accepting an invitation to visit the family's home on her day off while headed out for a swim with her kids. This could be seen as working overtime to develop a source or something less ethical.
"Some reporters draw it as a bright line, as a 'Thou shalt not' … and others see socializing with people as a way to get to know their sources and get to improve their reporting," said Kathleen B. Culver, a former reporter who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"But in this case, given that it was so high profile and potentially controversial a story the decision to what appears to me to be socializing with him is very surprising," Culver said, having reviewed the raw footage Channel 2 posted online. "I certainly wouldn't look at that friendly situation as source development."
The relationships between journalists and those they cover is always ripe for examination.
U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald's recent CIA leak probe exposed how Washington news is disseminated through tips to friendly reporters and agreements that protect sources' identities.
Some have questioned what's lost in the apparent coziness between newsmakers and some of those assigned to keep tabs on them.
Attorney Ronald A. Stearney Jr., who represented the family of a 6-year-old boy killed in a 2005 plane accident outside Midway Airport, accused Jacobson of "a classic bait and switch" at that time for dangling a big appearance on NBC's "Today" to secure a Channel 5 interview with the late boy's family.
Stearney said Tuesday "she is able to deliver the interviews at whatever costs."
The University of Wisconsin's Culver was struck by the speed with which the station moved. "Contrast this with the very slow-speed chase we're seeing with the L.A. mayor and the Telemundo anchor," she said.
In Los Angeles, at Spanish-language Telemundo station KVEA-TV—like WMAQ, an NBC Universal-owned station—newscaster Mirthala Salinas was only placed on a leave of absence from her duties earlier this month pending review after it was revealed she had been having an affair with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who separated in June from his wife of 20 years.
Salinas has covered the mayor, including the news of his separation.
Jacobson, who hails from suburban Mt. Prospect, leaves behind a staff at WMAQ that includes Marion Brooks, who had to testify last year about her four-year relationship with former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell that began when she was an anchor in that city.