Friday, April 13, 2012

"Call me irresponsible"... not just a Sinatra hit, but the latest motto for broadcast journalism

Responsible journalism, if it even exists anymore, may have seen the final nail driven into its coffin this week.

Lady Gaga may as well be the poster child for our business: let's be as outrageous as possible, do something that goes viral on the Internet. Doesn't matter who it hurts or if it affects the story. The bottom line is all that matters. Be controversial, break rules, don't worry about hurting anyone. Human beings are just collateral damage. Bad taste is now more the rule than the exception.

Back in the day people in our business strove to have class. There were things that you didn't say on television, stories that didn't belong. Kids were watching. You wouldn't do a story that you'd be ashamed to show your mother. While political correctness didn't exist, you didn't want to say anything offensive. We were proper, polite, respectful. Our language was squeaky clean on air even though the salty language of the newsroom may have rivaled a bunch of sailors. Like doctors, we believed this: first do no harm.

So when a network reporter manages to drop both an f-bomb and the n-word in the same sentence, it's irresponsibility at its highest level. Yes, let's take a potentially explosive situation and pour gasoline on the fire. This wasn't one of those open mic moments that we've all had, but simply premeditated irresponsibility. What did the reporter think would happen? And what if those words inflamed the situation to the point that someone was hurt or killed? We'd know whose hands the blood was on. Apologize all you want, but, as they say, that barn door has sailed.

I always go back to a News Director I had more than 20 years ago. He was checking scripts, as he always did, and I had been doing a story with possible legal implications. I pointed to one track and said, "I wasn't sure if this might get us in trouble." He took his red pen and crossed it out. "If you have to think about it," he said, "don't do it."

Problem these days is that people think about it, then do it anyway.

Whether it's making personal attacks on a politician's wife (that network sure has had a great week, huh?) or trying a case in the media, it's irresponsible journalism. We can't know what is in someone's mind, we can't know what happened in a crime with no eyewitnesses because we weren't there. We can't walk in someone's shoes, can't judge someone because that person is different. We can't hammer someone else's opinion, because everyone is entitled to one, and as smart as we may think we are, there's someone out there who thinks our opinions are just as wrong.

We can't be irresponsible, because in this day and age it gets noticed big time. And the trickle down effect is that the industry, as a whole, loses the respect of the public. Eventually, if this keeps up, we'll be broadcasting to no one.


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