Tuesday, February 5, 2008

To News or Not to News; That is the Question

©2008 by LeeZard

Here’s a media ethics question: where is the line between news and the invasion of privacy? We all know the cliché about local TV news, “if it bleeds it leads.” But, the issue goes beyond the tube; all branches of the news media trade in personal tragedy, big and small. Murder and mayhem are relatively cheap and easy to cover. Additionally, they appeal to our societal hunger for gossip, which means ratings and readers.

Granted, big tragedies – commercial plane crashes, train wrecks, earthquakes, major weather events and the like – are news. What troubles me is when those in the news business go overboard in attempts to “humanize” these major stories or, when they make someone’s individual tragedy – a hit-and-run-accident, an assault or some other crime – “news.” Let me give you a couple of examples – one from my earliest days in broadcasting at a three-station radio network on Long Island and the other from my last posting as a reporter in the late 1990's for KIRO NewsRadio in Seattle.

In early 1967, the war in Vietnam was heating up; so was public awareness and opposition. Part of my job as a rookie reporter for Long Island Network News, was to make a daily phone call to the Pentagon to see if there were any local casualties in the conflict. Week after week, day-in and day-out the answer was negative – until the inevitable “yes.” I rushed into my News Director's office with the news.

“Okay,” he snapped, “get on it. Did you get the full name? Did you get an address? Call the family. Get an interview!”

I was taken aback by that last one. I was raw – not yet 20-years old – and the thought of interviewing parents who just lost their son in a war thousands of miles away was daunting. Nonetheless I went to look up their phone number. Finding nothing in the White Pages, I called Information. “Sorry, we have no listing for that name, or that address,” the operator informed me. I assumed an unlisted number. Admittedly relieved, I went to report my fruitless search to the boss. He was undeterred. “Get in your car and go find ‘em.”

Long Island is noted for its many well-to-do communities. In 1967, Inwood was not one of them – at least not the section of Inwood in which this family lived. As I turned down the correct street, I took note of the dilapidated houses with roofs in disrepair and faded, chipped paint jobs. I found the house at the dead-end of the block, where the pavement ended in a dirt driveway. The wooden stairs to the front door complained under my weight as I made my way to the screen-door-without-a-screen hanging on one hinge. I knocked on the door and let out a tentative, “hello, anybody home?” No answer. I knocked again and tried a firmer “hello.”

Finally, a small middle-aged African American woman came to the door. “Yes?” she almost whispered. “What can I do for you?” She looked with obvious suspicion at the small cassette tape recorder hanging from my shoulder and the microphone in my hand. I apologized for the intrusion and identified myself as a reporter. Now, she looked puzzled. “Why would a reporter want me?”

“I’d like to interview you about your son,” I answered. “Can I talk with you and your husband?” She turned her head into the darkened house. “Charlie,” she called over her shoulder, “some reporter wants to talk to us about Jake.”

She looked back at me and, as she stepped aside to let me in, asked, “What’s Jake done? We haven’t heard from him in two weeks.” That’s when it hit me like a baseball bat in the gut; she didn’t know.

As it turned out, the family didn’t have a phone and I’d beaten any military representatives to these poor folks’ front door. I felt trapped; I wanted to bolt from the house but I couldn’t leave without an explanation. Not knowing what else to do, I simply blurted out the truth. “I don’t know what to say,” I began. “I called the Pentagon today and learned that your son was killed in Vietnam. I am so, so sorry that you didn’t know yet.”

Perhaps, if I was a veteran reporter, I would’ve had my tape recorder running to memorialize this human drama – but that was the last thing on my mind. All I could do was collapse in a big chair in the dimly lit living room that was silent but filled with grief and disbelief. There was no interview.

Now, I understand that this was a legitimate news story. If it wasn't the first local casualty in Vietnam, it was certainly one of the first. But, was it appropriate to get the family's reaction so soon (even if they had received the official notification). My friends in the news business might say, "yes," because it was a major story. But, I'm still not sure. When I think about it, even today, my heart aches for the parents.

I carried that incident with me throughout a 20-year career in broadcasting, the question never far from my mind: Where was the line between news and privacy in that one?

On January 31, 2000 Alaska Airlines flight #261, carrying 88 people, plunged into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. Ninety minutes after news of the crash hit the wires, I was on a plane to cover the story for KIRO NewsRadio in Seattle. I arrived in Port Hueneme (y NEE mee), California from where the search and rescue (and then recovery) efforts were coordinated and checked in with my boss back in Seattle.

“Go find victims’ families,” he ordered. “I want interviews. Find out what hotel they’re in and start knocking on doors randomly.” I started to voice my protest but choked it back. Now, I was a grizzled veteran reporter and I knew any argument would be fruitless. I’m sorry to say I did actually knock on a few doors – very few – just so I could tell my boss I did so. Luckily, nobody answered. I wondered, though, would I have actually interviewed them if I did come across a victim’s family? Could I? The bigger, and still unanswered question is, should I?