KMOV: Setting a bad example

KMOV logoFrom the first day of my course in basic journalism at Lindenwood University last semester, I hammered into my students’ heads the importance of accuracy in reporting.

It was an essential part of my lectures, my assignments and my grading system ― so much so that the students were ordered to supply me with contact information for the sources in each of their stories. Any detail they cited had to be referenced, and that reference had to have an email address or phone number attached for me to verify.

If doubt trumped veracity, their grades suffered. Heavily.

“Accuracy is at the core of your credibility,” I said and posted in a PowerPoint presentation. “Subtract that and you’re less of a journalist, less of a professional.”

I wonder now if I should extend a formal invitation to the reporting staff of KMOV-TV to take my course. Because recent events involving the CBS affiliate have put into question its appreciation of accuracy in reporting.

The first event, profiled here last month, involved former KMOV news anchor Larry Conners, who stirred protest and scuttled his job by alleging via Facebook that the Internal Revenue Service was harassing him because of an interview in April 2012 with President Barack Obama that Conners believed put the president on the defensive.

Conners admitted in the Facebook post he had no proof but neglected to mention that his issues with the IRS went back at least four years before the interview. The station soon fired Conners, accusing him of harboring bias and dragging KMOV’s name through his speculation.

Conners insists he was just doing his job. He’s busy now however leveling another accusation, having filed a discrimination suit against KMOV on a peripheral matter.

Event No. 2 blew through Twitter on Friday evening as tornadic winds bounded between St. Charles and St. Louis, followed by a flood of tweets saying KMOV had reported on television around 8:30 that a “mass casualty” event involved a storm-wrecked hotel in the storm’s path.

The phrase echoed ominously across social media as the Twitterverse awaited a citable source from KMOV confirming the destruction. No other news provider offered similar reports or alternate confirmation, and at least one wondered openly where KMOV was getting its information. Meanwhile, social media watchers said KMOV kept repeating the frightening words on the air.

KMOV began backing away from its initial televised report about 30 minutes later, but not before changing the location of destruction and leaving St. Louis County authorities and representatives of the hotels that were named to assuage fears via their own social media. By then, the storm seemed secondary on Twitter to KMOV’s own hasty, alarming damage assessment.

Twitterers continued hurling brickbats at the station well into the next day. Even social media maven Andy Carvin of National Public Radio weighed in.

“Yet another twitter rumor spread because of poor initial reporting by mainstream media,” he tweeted Saturday.

Though KMOV never explained itself, the initial report of mass storm casualties was thought to be inspired by a vague understanding of dialog emanating from a police scanner ― historically, an unreliable source for factual information. You would think KMOV already knew this.

“Police reporters depend on sources in the department and on their knowledge of police procedure for their stories,” wrote educator Melvin Mencher in his college text “News Reporting and Writing,” now in its 12th edition. He later added that, “Sins of omission occur when the journalist fails to act in situations in which revelation is required. … More often, the omission is the result of laziness or ignorance.”

A group effort by Fred Fedler, John R. Bender, Lucinda Davenport and Michael R. Drager titled “Reporting for the Media” reiterates this point.

“If reporters lack some information, they should consult their sources again,” the authors wrote. “Reporters should never guess or make assumptions about the facts. … Conscientious news organizations check their stories’ accuracy.”

And former newspaper editor Tim Harrower devotes a portion of his own popular textbook, “Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism,” to covering accidents and disasters. Intrinsic to this kind of journalism: confirming before reporting.

“No matter how useful the Internet may be, it’s no substitute for reality ― for real discussions with real human beings,” Harrower wrote.

All of these texts have been around at least 10 years and are staples of journalism education. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at KMOV who studied journalism hasn’t read one, or read one like them.

But if they haven’t, the Boston Marathon bombings offered a contemporary lesson as twitterers latched onto police scanner reports of the manhunt for the bombing suspects, and ensuing urban lockdown, and quoted like gospel every snatch of detail and garbled bit of dialog.

“Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts,” wrote Curt Woodward in Cognoscenti, assessing the manhunt’s impact. “… The stuff being said over those airwaves is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.

“Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes,” he continued. “If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear coming over the scanner, without confirming it first.”

True, the proximity of Conners’ situation and KMOV’s storm reporting were too close to be anything but coincidence. Still, the dual social media failures imply a pattern of behavior, a misunderstanding about the importance, relevance and sensitivity of social media usage in news reporting.

So, I welcome staffers at KMOV to sit in on my classes next semester, particularly the one where we discuss how best to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and review how the station can start setting a better example. Or, I can lend them the textbooks; I have all three.

Or, maybe I’ll just have one of my students explain it to them.

Larry ignored me, and look what happened

Poor Larry. If only he had taken me up on my offer.

Larry Conners, courtesy of  the Post-DispatchThe Larry in question is Larry Conners, the once-ubiquitous, now erstwhile KMOV-TV news anchor. My offer was an invitation that he join the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I can’t help but think that if he had accepted the invitation, maybe, just maybe, Conners wouldn’t be in such a fix today.

Instead, he’s learning a lesson about the vagaries of celebrity and social media, and those lessons can to be harsh.

Al Roker knows this. So does Anthony Weiner, Ashton Kutcher, Kenneth Cole, and the former Chad Ochocinco: Posting or tweeting with indifference, ignorance or insensitivity can tarnish reputations, perhaps beyond polish.

The Web bristles with examples of questionable social networking behavior, to the extent that a top tip for job hunters is sweeping out offensive material from their networking sites before sending out résumés.

Yet the harsh lessons persist, with no learning evident or behaviors changed. Conners, 66, a 37-year veteran of St. Louis television, sets the latest example.

Conners took a face plant on Facebook last week when he hinted at personal intimidation from the Internal Revenue Service resulting from his televised interview of President Barack Obama in April 2012. During the interview, he issued criticism allegedly passed along from KMOV viewers about the president racking up frequent flyer vacation miles at taxpayer expense.

Conners spoke out only now because he says he was inspired by a recent IRS admission that the agency allowed tougher-than-usual scrutiny of records coming from conservative interest groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Facebook, Conners, while not revealing his politics, suggested the interview with Obama alone might have brought down scrutiny on himself. He didn’t mention though that his own tax issues predate the Obama interview.

On air a day later, Conners backtracked a bit from his insinuations, but that clarification apparently wasn’t enough. His employer first suspended him, then cut him loose, saying the Facebook post undercut his journalistic credibility and that of the station.

Since then, Conners has defended his intentions on a rival station. His next defense may come in court; Conners has hired an attorney.

I shake my head in dismay.

Three years ago, I was the newly minted president of SPJ’s St. Louis chapter, and as a courtesy to all major media members in the area sent out invitations to either join or rejoin the 114-year-old national society, which among other ideals espouses a Code of Ethics considered to be the standard for behavior among journalists.

The society not only posts this Code online, it has printed copies that the St. Louis chapter offers at most of its monthly meetings. High up in the Code’s wording, it exhorts journalists to “exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

Given Conners’ lengthy tenure in television news, one might think he wouldn’t need a reminder. But that’s why SPJ posts the Code and prints the cards; we all need reminding.

Today, journalists toe a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity. The former underpins their credibility; the latter seeps through because media companies urge their talent to blog, post and tweet for the sake of higher readership and ratings.

Undeniably, social media has become a tool for news gathering, but it’s also a window into a person’s thinking.

And there’s another problem. Social media lets users believe they’re staring at a screen instead of a potential audience numbering in the millions. The impersonal nature of digital networking masks a deeper truth: We’re actually staring at each other, face to face.

That’s why Conners might be forgiven for his statements against the IRS, and his transgression dismissed, on a claim of social media ignorance. But he went a step further by concluding his Facebook accusation with the line, “Can I prove it? At this time, no.”

Those perhaps were the worst words he could have written. Proof forms the foundation of journalistic credibility and integrity. Absent proof, Conners’ words amounted to a rant. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is clear on this.

So, I wish Larry had taken me up on my offer to join SPJ awhile back. Then he might have had the Code on a card somewhere within view while he was Facebooking.

I’ll probably send him one anyway. He can still learn something from it.