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.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Your own words should not be in someone else's sound bite

Several years ago I was covering a national story, one of those things where every news organization is represented. We had to take turns with an interview subject, and I caught a little of the dialogue between one reporter and the woman she was interviewing. The woman had answered the same question several times, but apparently it was not to the liking of the reporter.

Reporter: "So, aren't you trying to say this? (She explained what she thought the woman should say.) And if you could repeat your answer for me it would help."

Great. Wonderful. Why the hell bother interviewing someone if you're gonna put words in her mouth? In this case we had a reporter either trying to put forth her own agenda or wanting the perfect sound bite.

(By the way, I looked up that reporter and she is apparently no longer in the business.)

This is a rather blatant example of putting words into someone's mouth, but I see it in a more subtle manner all the time. If your question begins with, "So, what you're trying to say is..." then you are, as they say in court, leading the witness.

If you're interviewing someone and you don't get a great sound bite, ask another question. Don't ask the exact same question hoping to get a different answer. And do not, under any circumstances, "help" the person "figure out" what he or she is "trying" to say.

Of course sometimes with politicians you have to ask the same question over and over because they simply go off on tangents and don't answer it. "Let me repeat the question since you didn't really answer it," is a common line when the pols are dodging an issue.

But when the average Joe is on the other end of the microphone, keep your words and opinions out of his mouth.