Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sensationalizing for Sweeps

I found a grand example of the ethical problem LA discusses below.

Two weeks ago, an ABC affiliate in Tucson -- KGUN Channel 9 -- aired an "investigative report" by Jennifer Waddell on the trend of using Craig's List to plan sex romps in public places around the city, like construction sites and parks.

The response was general outrage, for several reasons, which a writer for the Tucson Weekly sums up nicely [read it here]:

[1] Fear-mongering. The piece begins with this gem:

"The Internet: You take one wrong turn, and you have gone from looking for a puppy to straight-up pornography involving women and men."

What? Really? And how does that happen, exactly? This description MIGHT have worked 15 years ago, when we were all just learning what the Internet was. The package goes on to conflate the illegality of a public sex act with ... actual or even potential harm to the community. She vaguely describes harm to "public safety."

[2] Waddell talks about police intervention. In her SU, she holds up some folded papers and claims they are police reports re: public sex acts. Later, a VO references video of a stack of paper as reports from an undercover sting operation.
But she gives no real facts to buttress her assertion that public sex is a problem in Tucson.

[3] As you can see in the quote above, Waddell opens the piece talking about "men and women" who seek out sex online. She does the same thing at the end, but in between, it's all MEN.

The Tucson Weekly put it very well: "Awkwardly bracketing her piece with assurances that, yes, both men and women can get off in public may have been KGUN's way of trying to deflect the gay community's concerns."

But not a very effective strategy.

Last week, KGUN aired what I think is a shamefully inadequate response the the criticism [see it here]. Said Waddell:

"We investigated because we are on your side [referencing the station's slogan, '9 on Your Side']. We believe parents needed to know about Craig's List so they could protect their kids ... We are committed to tackling tough stories. You asked us to investigate, and we did."

Without acknowledging the grievous error made in leaving them out, Waddell spouts the numbers and facts about the police reports and undercover investigation.

Then she really knuckles down and shares some of the letters and calls to the station.

The first person thinks the report was fair because it was true: "You got video of the [public sex] activity."

The next respondent says the report was done "with great professionalism" and THANKS the station "on behalf of" the GLBT community.

Then we hear from two critics. Probably the nicest critics ever. The first points out that he, personally, doesn't see the "imminent danger to people and their families that you implied." The second is miffed because the report didn't include the fact that many local GLBTs oppose public sex or are parents themselves.

Finally, and I think worst of all, Waddell's follow-up implies that GLBT advocacy groups were intractable in their dealings with her ... and refused to comment prior to the story airing.

They say it went QUITE differently. Before it even aired, local and national GLBT advocacy groups say they protested Waddell's package for stereotyping and stigmatizing gay men. One Tucson group has demanded Waddell apologize for lying and misleading them, as well as damaging the reputation of the GLBT community.



At Sunday, February 18, 2007, Anonymous LA said...

Wow - there are so many things gong wrong in how KGUN handled the report - from the original piece to their response to how they handled viewer feedback. How stations deal with criticism and how they respond to viewers shows their credibility and shows what the station is really about.
And a lot of the problems really come out during sweeps, in competition, under money pressures, and when not managed closely enough (or perhaps too closely - depending on what the management is like!)
This doesn't even get into how bad the story is. This is one of those cases where I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to see how the idea came about and why the story took the direction it did!

At Sunday, February 18, 2007, Blogger Medill Media Watch said...

I agree with LA...why was this story newsworthy? I think it could've had a better angle if it were emails from unknown sources with subject lines that could be deceptive---but the story, itself, lacks context.

It's bad enough to air a story that lacks a hook, but even worse to focus (either directly or indirectly) on one visual source (i.e. all men). I would think a cross-section of couples would add and not detract from the stations credibility....


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