The Connecticut school shooting has dominated the headlines for many days. As usual in such circumstances, the media coverage itself has come under scrutiny and brought criticism about such issues as factual mistakes, especially early on, and interviews of children.
Coverage of these major events offer news directors a chance to review their own policies and thinking on how their news organizations might cover a similar story. I asked Austin’s five news directors to comment on the Connecticut coverage. Two veterans responded—YNN’s Michael Pearson and KVUE’s Frank Volpicella.
I asked them how they guard against the reporting of bad information in a tense situation with constantly changing “facts” and the competitive pressures to be first. I also asked about the use of unnamed sources and reports on social media. I asked if they would have interviewed children, even with parental consent, live or pre-recorded. Third, I questioned them on the reporting of the shooter’s history of asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Finally, with some commentators opposing massive coverage of the shooter for fear of “glorifying” him and possibly leading to “copycat” shootings in the future, I asked Pearson and Volpicella for their opinions.
Michael Pearson–It’s all about transparency in reporting. I have a little trouble swallowing stories like the one in the Statesman on Sunday headlined: “Media stumbled over many ‘facts’ as story unfold” by the Associated Press. Yes, I think criticism of the cable networks is somewhat fair because they have this tendency to fail to include lines like, “The best information we have right now is…” Or, “We’ve been told this by one source, but we have not confirmed that information…” I think news consumers fully understand breaking news and developing stories and how that reporting is done. It is extremely important that we are very transparent with our viewers about what we are doing in our reporting and letting them know the source of our information and the limitations of that information.
YNN Austin would have interviewed children on camera, but only after pre-interviews with the child accompanied by a parent and the videotaped interview makes it very clear the parent is a third party in that interview. And then the interviews would be very judicious and aired only one or two times. Al Tompkins with the Poynter Institute sent out a piece to news directors offering excellent ethical guidelines for doing and televising these interviews. Check out www.poynter.org. YNN Austin often turns to Al for advice involving journalistic ethics and has been employed by us for training our staff. Also, YNN Austin every year sends two members of its staff to the Poynter Institute for more intensive training in ethical storytelling.
In my view mental illness is a major part of the story. What I worry about is the hype of some journalists’ reporting intended to keep the story going that says, “We are still trying to find answers as to why this happened.” To me, the answer is abundantly clear, the mass killer of innocent children is mentally ill. That’s why it happened. What YNN Austin and our Capital Tonight political team is doing is reporting on the collapse of the state’s mental health safety net as a result of massive cuts in mental health funding in Texas.
When the shooter’s photo was first available, I asked our producers to run it only once, if at all. And we have barely mentioned him. Our coverage has been focused on the children and their families, the community of Newtown and local reaction.
Frank Volpicella–As far as reporting information that was not factual or properly vetted…the lack of information coming from law enforcement added to that chaos. In those types of breaking news stories, wrong information will unfortunately find its way on air. But I can’t second guess the decisions that were made from 2000 miles away.
I wrote a KVUE News philosophy statement some years ago, that in an overview, calls for restraint and respect in covering the victims of crimes. But in a story of this magnitude, you must go with your years of training, and gut instincts.
As to reporting inaccurate information….the basic rules of journalism should apply, and should not be waived because of the nature of the story. Who is the source? And is that source informed? Many times people in authority speak, but don’t have the knowledge or the facts to do so. Journalists should always name the source, name and title, so that individual knows they are being quoted, and so you can hold them accountable for inaccurate information.
If other media are reporting something as factual, we will confirm independently. However, there will be times when we attribute a fact to the AP, or the Statesman. As long as we name the source, and work to confirm independently, I’m comfortable in some cases, in reporting information from another outlet, especially ABC or CNN.
As to unnamed sources, we don’t use them. There is always an exception, but I haven’t found one yet. Why does that source want to remain anonymous? Are they in a position to know the information first hand? Typically we use that unnamed source to find another source to get it on the record. It’s more important to be right, than first.
Social media presents another problem. The information must come from a reputable source on SM, such as police or the FBI. SM can be a great tool to help us gather information. But without proper documentation or fact checking, we cannot report that information as factual.
As to interviewing children. Tough call. What are their ages? A 12 year old is different from a 6 year old. But I would say in general, I would steer away from any live interviews, even with parental consent. It’s too exploitative.
I would possibly agree to a recorded interview. Then we can consider its value without the deadline pressures of being live. The age of the child will matter, as well as parental consent. And of course, we would want to know what the child has seen or heard. But, I would show restraint and be sensitive to the circumstance.
I disagree with other media who failed to report the shooter’s name. I don’t believe that “glorifies” him. Quite the contrary. There is no glory in what he did. Who he is, is the first step in understanding the why. I have yet to see a study that links media coverage of a mass shooting, as a motive for a subsequent mass shooting. How can we not report his name? Again, it’s how we report the facts that is important. We must show respect and restraint to the victims and their families. With the web and social media, video, photos and information of all kinds will find their way to the news consumer. We as the “traditional media,” must be more careful, responsible and accurate in what we report, because we are still the only media that people can hold accountable.
Michael Pearson is a former longtime print journalist in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Killeen. He began his TV news career in San Antonio before joining YNN in 2000. He became the cable channel’s news director in 2010. Pearson is a 1978 journalism graduate of Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State).
Frank Volpicella has been a reporter, producer and assignments manager in Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Tampa/St. Petersburg and Atlanta. He was news director in Lexington, Kentucky and Huntsville, Alabama before joining KVUE as executive news director in 2000. Volpicella earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Florida.
A major problem in this, the 45th largest TV news market, is the seemingly constant turnover in the reporter ranks. Just when a reporter starts to learn how to pronounce our street names and towns and begins to have a feel for the important issues and personalities in the news, he/she is on the move to seemingly greener pastures.
When they first move here, all news reporters rave about how much they love Austin, its quality of life, its beautiful views, its live music and great people. Eventually, however, that’s not enough, and if they are any good, off they go.
Why? An obvious guess has to be a relatively low pay scale. We can only hope that ownership and top management think about correcting that if we are ever to get the reporting levels we deserve. Until then, with a few exceptions, we have to endure while the kids from West Texas, East Texas and Waco learn the ropes here.
While all the stations have their reporter turnover moments, this week it’s KVUE’s turn, with one leaving and two joining. Morgan Chesky, who joined KVUE in April 2011 and who had become one of the station’s better reporters and fill-in anchors, has landed a weekend anchor job at KOCO, the ABC affiliate in Oklahoma City. His last day at KVUE will be December 19.
Chesky moved here after two years at KLTV, Tyler. While there, he earned a “best reporter” award from the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters. Like a certain Heisman Trophy winner, Chesky is a graduate of Kerrville Tivy High School.
Chesky says he was not looking to leave, but that KOCO contacted him because of the experience and guidance he gained at KVUE.
“Terri Gruca, Tyler Sieswerda and our news director, Frank Volpicella, took me under their wing and taught me the skills I needed,” Chesky told me. “It’s no secret that KVUE is a great place to work, so anchor turnover doesn’t happen often.”
In Oklahoma City, Chesky will be anchoring five shows a weekend, three on Saturday and two on Sunday, and will report nightside on three weekdays. He says the market never has a dull moment. “It’s a very competitive market and a lot more people watch news there than in Austin,” Chesky said. “I feel confident my time at KVUE has given me the tools to do well and earn their trust in Oklahoma City.”
Reversing the trend in both geography and age is KVUE’s new sports reporter/fill-in sports anchor, Shawn Clynch, 39, who has begun work at KVUE. For almost six years, Clynch has been a sports reporter, anchor, producer and sports photographer at KOKH, the Fox station in Oklahoma City. He’s an Austin native and graduate of Anderson High School.
“I always said that Oklahoma is one place I will never work or live, but it turned out to be a great place,” Clynch said. “Still, you can’t get Austin out of your blood. The opportunity to cover the Horns and work for such a solid station is just a great opportunity. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason.”
Before Oklahoma City, Clynch worked at KACB, San Angelo, and KTRE Lufkin-Nacogdoches, where he was sports director for four years. While there, he worked with current KVUE anchor Bryan Mays and photographer Scott McKenney, both of whom were in his wedding. Clynch earned a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Communications degree from Stephen F. Austin State University.
Finally, replacing Chesky in early January will be Shannon Murray, a Dallas native and broadcast journalism graduate of the University of Texas. She has been a reporter and fill-in anchor at KOSA, Midland-Odessa for two-and-a-half years and also a radio correspondent for KCRS, Odessa.
“I lived in Austin for four years and most of my friends are there, so it was always my goal to get back there,” Murray said. “I’ve had a great experience here in Midland-Odessa and I’m sad to leave everybody here, but I could see myself building a life in Austin. I love the town.”
Murray interned for a summer for the Ellen DeGeneres Show and also served an internship with KXAN news.