August 22nd, 2010
When a Reporter Becomes Part of the Story
By Luther Turmelle
If I learned nothing else in four years of journalism school at Boston University, it was that a reporter’s job is to tell stories, not become part of them.
But nearly 30 years later, the journalism landscape is littered with examples of reporters who have violated that basic rule.
Perhaps it was inevitable. As someone studying for a master’s degree in interactive communications, professors and interactive communications experts stress the importance of “building the brand” of the individual. It’s a concept that is supposed to help your writing stand out from the cacophony of voices online.
And while that aspect of branding may be a good thing, standing out from the crowd also makes you vulnerable to intense scrutiny and in some extreme cases personal ruination.
As a traffic and style reporter for WTNH, the ABC affiliate here in Connecticut, Desiree Fontaine had developed quite a following before she was caught shoplifting in a Milford shopping mall earlier this summer. But her fame before the incident was nothing compared to what happened after she got caught.
If she was anything but a highly recognizable television personality, getting caught shoplifting might not have cost Fontaine her job. In fact, it’s possible that her employer would have even found out about it, if she had worked as secretary or waitress.
But instead, it caused WTNH and Fontaine some embarrassment. And yet at the same time, it attracted interested news consumers to the web sites of other Connecticut media outlets.
On a much larger stage, the conduct of veteran television sports reporter Jim Gray has been called into question because of his penchant for becoming part of the stories he covers. The New York Times said as much in this Aug. 17th story about Gray’.
Gray served as LeBron James co-star in last month’s televised ESPN special about where the newly-minted NBA free agent was going to sign. But instead of asking the question that was on everyone’s mind – “So, LeBron, are you going to re-sign with Cleveland or are you going to play somewhere else?,” Grey’s role was more that of a co-conspirator in a deliberate attempt to delay revealing James’ plans until as late in the show as possible so that a larger audience could be squeezed out of the program.
Similar questions were questions were raised in January about Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon who also works as a journalist for CNN. At one point, as AOL News Editor Steve Pendlebury reports in this story, Gupta took time out from covering the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti to answer a request by US Navy doctors to operate on a Haitian girl who suffered a severe head injury in the quake.
Connecticut journalists covering the arrest and legal proceedings in the aftermath of a workplace violence also found themselves right in the middle of the story earlier this month.
The incident in question involved a woman accused of accepting a stolen beer keg from Omar Thronton, a Hartford Distributors employee who would later kill nine co-workers after being confronted by company officials over the theft. As Christy Quail left court, her husband, Sean, sprayed insecticide on reporters who were questioning his wife. White was arrested a short time later by police for his actions.
All of Connecticut’s television news broadcasts ran the story, but WTIC-TV, Fox 61, made it the lead item of its 10 p.m. newscast on Aug. 17th.
There is no question that interest in the story of what some Connecticut media outlets have dubbed “The Manchester Massacre” is high right now. But my educated opinion is that Fox 61 made its decision on story placement because its reporter and cameraman were hit with the brunt of Sean Quail’s attack.
The idea of reporters becoming a part of the stories they report on – particularly when it involves tragedies like the one in Haiti – hasn’t been lost on some people. Mike Lyons, an assistant professor of English at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia has labeled the trend “emo-journalism.”
“Emo-journalism is a trend that is probably being talked about in classes around the country,” said Lyons, who is shown at left. “Recent examples like the CNN video of Anderson Cooper rescuing a child in the chaos of post-quake Haiti, and Sanjay Gupta performing brain surgery on television, indicate that journalistic ethics are changing.”
Lyons, who is a former reporter with the Associated Press, said a combination of factors are responsible for the paradigm shift.
“Cameras can go anywhere now and they can constantly be running,” Lyons says. “Couple that with an appetite from the audience for ‘reality’ and it follows that those telling the stories would become part of the stories.”
Lyons said he is concerned that as reporters become part of a story, ” how can they bear faithful witness to the truth?”
As long a journalism remains a business driven by advertising, attracting the largest audience possible will always be a primary consideration for journalists. But at the same time, we can not forget that once reporters become part of a story, it changes forever and does not reflect reality.