In Depth

Sign Off: Crossing the Line Between Privacy and News

By Tom Petner

In my first television job at a Philadelphia station, I occasionally enjoyed introducing myself as director of intercorporate communications. Translation: I was a mail boy. Sorting the mail was technically moving intercorporate communication.

That puffed-up title was a stretch, but nothing more than a harmless conversation starter, good for a laugh. But I learned quickly as I moved into the news department that there’s no stretch factor allowed in news — it is serious business with serious consequences.

The fact is, even in this technological age of digital media — everything all the time and everywhere — there’s still a line that shouldn’t be crossed. No matter how you twist, slice or dice the definition, news should include some expectation of privacy.

But just where is that line? I was reminded of this new media dilemma recently when I heard about the dustup over how one Dallas station redefined — I would say bent — what we call news. At the center of the flap was WFAA-TV, its news management and its main sportscaster, Dale Hansen.

An amateur video-eavesdropper secretly taped Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in a bar-side conversation going off about former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. As you might guess, in this world of “no expectation of privacy,” the 47-second video hit the website Deadspin.com, expletive included, and eventually made its way onto YouTube.

The viral event became a tricky journalistic situation when WFAA news management aired a snippet of the video on its 10 p.m. newscast. And things got even trickier when the news director, Michael Valentine, and his managers wanted Hansen, their veteran sports guy, to do the story.

Hansen refused and instead used his “Unplugged” commentary segment to assault news management’s decision to run the video, calling it “yet another example of the decline of journalism as we once knew it.”

“Jerry Jones in a bar, being Jerry Jones, is not news to me,” said Hansen. “And the fact that some creep slides up to Jones, records the conversation without Jones knowing, then tries to sell that recording — and that becomes news — is an embarrassment to us all.”

That was strong stuff coming from Hansen. And to do it on WFAA’s air was — well, it was gutsy.
It was also gutsy for Valentine to encourage Hansen to take his best shot — choosing not to read Hansen’s script beforehand.

“It takes a lot of courage to allow [Hansen’s] comments and to post the comments on the station website,” said Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute. “But I still think the station owes some explanation to the audience on why the video is news, and why comments made at a bar deserve to be aired, and how the station made the decision to use it.”

“The reason we ran the story had nothing to do with whether or not other people were going to do it,” according to Valentine. “A, it was out in a public forum; B, he’s a public figure; but C — and most importantly, which we didn’t get into in our story and Dale didn’t get into in his commentary — Jerry Jones got public funding for that stadium. His comment about Bill Parcells in relation to the stadium was fundamentally relevant to the public money he got for the stadium. That made it newsworthy in my eyes.”

So what about this expectation of privacy; where’s the line?

“I don’t know,” said Valentine bluntly. “Has the business changed in that regard? Yes. But I think a large part of that is in direct relation to technology. Should Jerry Jones have the presumption of privacy when he’s out in public talking about a stadium that’s partly publicly funded? I don’t think so.”

What about the context of this secretly recorded video? That would seem especially important if you’re dealing with a bar-side conversation and a public figure.

“We should know how the video was captured,” said Poynter’s Al Tompkins. “We should know who captured it and what came before and after it.” In other words, was it a joke or was it even real?

As it turns out, news director Valentine didn’t know who shot the video and didn’t have direct contact. “The name of the person, I don’t know,” he said. “It was on YouTube, and the website [Deadspin.com]. We heard about it on the radio.”

“We called Jones’ office and we were waiting to hear back from them before we ran it,” said Valentine. “They called back and said we don’t have any comment on it. If they called and said that wasn’t Jerry Jones, here are a lot of hypotheticals as to why that video wouldn’t have run, but they said no comment.”

I applaud WFAA’s transparency and guts to take on-air criticism from one of their own, but as Hansen said in his commentary, “the news management ... while better than most on most days, on this day... this decision was the wrong decision.”

Tom Petner is an award-winning journalist and media executive. He can be reached at tpetner@gmail.com.