JOURNALISTIC STANDARDS Essays
May 8, 2007, 12:32
By: Lon Woodbury
Anyone who has watched the news or TV talk shows has seen this. A program host or a reporter invites a person to go on the air to talk about his/her activity. Then, when they are on the air, surprise accusations are hurled at the guests that put them in a position to either condemn their own work or defend abusive practices. Of course time restraints don't allow for an adequate explanation, and the guests wind up stumbling around and looking like they are either incompetent or are hiding something. This type of "gotcha" journalism, or "Ambush Journalism," has been summarized by the classic question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" Within tight time restraints, with this kind of question, it is impossible to make a good impression. However they respond the guest or subject looks bad.
Something similar frequently happens in print journalism also. We all have read news stories of meetings we have attended and wondered if we had attended the same meeting the reporter did. Sometimes the overworked reporter just didn't really understand what the meeting and the group was all about. Other times, the reporter came with a bias and essentially had already written the story, at least in its essentials, before even attending the meeting.
But there is a more insidious method sometimes used. That is, the reporter interviews a person and charms them into talking naturally and freely. The reporter either doesn't reveal the context of the article that will be written, or takes quotes of the interviewee out of context. Either way, the interviewee looks like they are endorsing abusive practices, or are incompetent and/or naïve. Although this method is considered unethical among conscientious journalists with professional standards, it still happens all too frequently.
However, if this happens to you, there sometimes is a remedy. You can complain to the publisher, and a publisher with high standards will move to correct it. This recently happened to one of our affiliates Larry Stednitz, and he did achieve some sense of satisfaction.
In the fall of 2005 he had been interviewed on the phone by reporter Michelle Chen. In the interview he talked positively of emotional growth and therapeutic boarding schools and the therapeutic benefit of the work ethic practiced by these schools. He had specifically talked about Mission Mountain School in Montana and his observations while visiting it as being positive.
When the article by Michelle Chen was published by The NewStandard online on Nov. 21, 2005, it was a hit piece with the title "At Some Youth 'Treatment' Facilities, 'Tough Love' Takes Brutal Forms." The article mischaracterized Mission Mountain School as a prime example of an unregulated, harsh, punishment-oriented work regime contributing to stories of "horrific experiences reported by young people…." The comments attributed to Larry Stednitz in this article would lead the reader to conclude that Larry Stednitz approved of these harsh practices, which is not true. In other words, he had been "set up!"
He complained to the publisher about the unfairness of the use of his name and quotations and eventually received the following reply, which was then added to the article.
"A source in this 2005 article wrote us recently to complain that a quote and paraphrase representing him were not placed in appropriate context. After serious review, we have agreed that he was correct. Our reporting suggested that Larry Stednitz, an educational consultant who refers parents to youth facilities and had visited Mission Mountain, was in favor of the "work regimens" described in this story. But a review of the interview transcript original revealed that he was not informed during the interview of the specific practices attested to in the article by other sources. Therefore, we have decided the quote and paraphrase were inappropriate, and have removed them entirely."
Fortunately, some in the media still do their best to exercise high standards, and ambush or "gotcha" journalism is not always accepted and approved.