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Guest Commentary: A Slippery Slope From News to Entertainment

Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

This will be the year of Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Martha Stewart, Princess Diana, Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant and, no doubt, many other celebrities whose scandals have yet to materialize.
As American journalists can stray across the line into the world of the tabloids without even thinking, this is just a friendly reminder to keep your stories centered and fair.
It is not our job to draw conclusions that should be made by the judicial system; nor is it our job to influence jury pools and cause changes of venue. Yet, as we just saw in the Peterson case, it happens.
The British tabloids go wild every time Princess Diana’s name comes up, and they can be expected to act as judge and jury as a new investigation into the circumstances of her death begins. By reporting such speculation directly out of the British tabloids, are American programs such as “Today” practicing responsible journalism?
The “get,” as I’ll call it, has gotten in the way of responsible thinking. Did CBS pay for the “60 Minutes” Michael Jackson interview? The network denies it, but the truth is that if any deal made to pay Mr. Jackson for the airing of his special included or was contingent on a “60 Minutes” interview, then yes, CBS paid for the interview, even if the money did not come out of “60 Minutes”’ budget. The way I look at it, Michael Jackson had financial incentive to do the “60 Minutes” interview whether “60 Minutes” paid for it or not.
I was waiting in the checkout line at the market and on the cover of a tabloid was a picture of Kobe Bryant’s accuser. Not exposing a rape victim is something we learn in Journalism 101.
My fear is that greed and competition are pushing and pulling at our journalistic integrity. In a recent move at NBC, Jeff Zucker was promoted to president of the Entertainment, News and Cable Group. Will the lines between entertainment and news be further blurred?
The cable networks watch each other and can easily get caught up in a game of guessing who will stay on a story the longest. A good example of that was Michael Jackson’s arraignment. The wall-to-wall coverage seemed endless. You have to ask yourself, isn’t this exactly what Michael Jackson wanted?
News managers are now being forced to make decisions that would have been unheard of in years past. Some local stations are charging for feature stories, the network morning shows are paying for more and more interviews and even the cable networks are taking out their checkbooks.
I am seeing more and more reporters interviewing other reporters instead of the newsmakers. The trend is alarming and a departure from sound journalistic practices.
So what can be done? Simple: Let’s remember to use common sense and stick to the reporting standards of the past.
Here are three simple questions to ask yourself about the story you’re working on.
* Can your story change the outcome of a trial or influence a jury?
* Does your story include information that you cannot openly attribute?
* Will anyone be harmed by your story?
If the answer is yes to any of these, then take a hard look at what you are doing. I would like to think that a responsible news director or editor won’t take issue with a decision not to print or air potentially damaging information.
With cable and the Internet now adding more and more sources for news, the competition is greater than ever. It’s up to each of us to resist the temptation and remain upstanding citizens of the journalism community.
Jeff Alan is author of “Responsible Journalism” and “Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News.”