Meet my conscience: The importance of setting up gut checks.

Recently in Chicago, there was a drive by shooting.  A freelance photographer got an interview with a 4 year old who mentioned when he grew up he was going to have a gun. The sound bite aired.  Trouble is, after that bite the child added that he wanted to become a police officer.  The police officer part did not air during a morning show at a local station.  The breakdowns in ethics in this case are numerous. Did the photog get the parent’s permission?  Did the person who wrote the vo/sot watch all of the interview before writing?  Why were the boy’s words taken out of context?  Why air sound from a 4 year old at all,  especially in a vosot?  This wasn’t a perspective piece.  It was a quick pacer story.  This is not an isolated case of something that is clearly dicey, ethically, ending up on the air.  Recently a station in Bristol, RI admitted it aired video from a golf tournament without explaining the video was a staged reenactment.

Ethical issues like this do happen and some would argue they are getting more common as stations grind more news out.  A recent RTNDA/Hofstra University study shows nearly 35 percent of stations added newscasts in 2010.  With more news churning out and smaller staffs to accomplish it, more ethical mistakes will happen unless there are systems of checks and balances as well as continued training on how to effectively write under intense deadline pressure.  Sometimes even the news managers are so tied up just trying to churn out the news, they cannot truly serve in a supervisory role.  University newsrooms cannot replicate this type of environment.  It is simply too dangerous to do while also teaching the basics of being a broadcast journalist.  But once you get your first job you are often thrown in, and there may not be set checks and balances to review your work.  For example, in several shops where I worked there was not an EP overseeing shows.  In fact there wasn’t a news manager at all during several shifts.  There was no one with clear editorial control.  You would write, the anchor would rewrite then, maybe, an associate producer would rewrite the copy again.  In other shops there was a manager (usually an assistant ND) who was ostensibly overseeing the daily mix.  But that manager was so swamped you could go all day without seeing the person.  Even if there is not a set system of checks and balances at your station, you need a personal one.  That means setting one up yourself, and leaning on fellow staffers.

So let’s talk gut checks.  In each shop I set up a relationship with several co-workers where we could give quick calls and exchange thoughts on issues that would come up.  This usually was not someone with the same job as I had in the newsroom.  I wanted someone with a different perspective and different crunch times.  Remember it is easy to armchair quarterback, but when you are standing in the pocket with a nasty linebacker bearing down, you just want to get rid of the ball!  As I mentioned, often there was no EP on staff to help oversee and check my work.  Other producers would think more like me or possibly have bad habits like watching raw video only until they heard a “good” sound bite, then starting to write without watching the rest of the video.  As a producer I leaned on my anchors for help.  If a story just didn’t feel right, or children were mentioned, I asked for a gut check read from an anchor that I trusted.  If the anchor was an attacking type personality, then I went to veteran reporters in the shop instead.  I even had my associate producers and editors watch raw tape and tell me what stood out as possible ethical issues on sensitive stories.  Notice some of the people had more experience, some less. All of us had enough ethics training that someone’s gut check would go off.

Reporters, your photogs are a great resource you probably have already considered.  Here’s another great resource, anchors.  They tend to have a little more free time to brainstorm with you.  If you are lucky enough to have an EP on staff, lean on him/her.  That person is paid to help you gut check.  Don’t let him/her off easy.  Call in.  If you do not trust your EP, or there isn’t one on your shift, lean on the anchors more.  Depending on the time of day, your producer is also an asset.

It is also critical that you set up a person with final say on rewrites.  If there’s no EP, then a producer or veteran anchor should have final say.  This should be clear to everyone who copy edits for the newscast on your shift.  That includes reporters.  That way if a fact error or ethical dilemma comes up there is a clear cut person who either makes the call or is in charge of contacting management so the bosses can make the call.

What if you do have an EP or assistant ND on staff monitoring things during your shift?  Set up a gut check system with other staffers anyway.  No one is perfect and managers are often pulled away or distracted by other duties.  It is good to have other staffers to lean on in case you feel like the manager is too distracted to help.  In the end, if you wrote the story you will be held accountable.  If you end up making an ethical mistake, and we all do at one time or another, you need to protect yourself by being able to say you took steps to check your work.  This should not get the other staffer you consulted with in trouble.  At least that never happened with me.  If I wrote the story, I was held accountable.  Showing you made efforts can make the difference between a stern scolding or suspension or being fired.  These gut checks will also help you grow as a journalist by seeing other perspectives and staying on your toes.  So ask someone to be your other conscience and return the favor.  As you can see from the examples at the beginning of this article, our industry needs more gut checks.