Media Critic: Louisville News Outlets Must Hold Themselves Accountable
No rational person expects news organizations to be 100 percent perfect all of the time, and because they aren’t, accountability should be built in to the journalistic process. (After all, it’s part of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.) Because there are no public or private entities that regulate journalism, journalists are responsible for holding themselves accountable by publicly acknowledging their errors of fact or judgment—if not in their usual medium, then at least on their websites and social media outlets.Many national news organizations (The New York Times, Fox News, Slate, NPR) routinely issue corrections and archive those corrections online. Local print organizations such as LEO, the News and Tribune, and The Courier-Journal acknowledge errors in their print editions and on their websites. Online organizations such as Insider Louisville print corrections and retractions as well. However, it’s difficult to find many examples of a local TV station publishing corrections to their online stories. There are plenty of corrections from other news agencies—for example, here is a KCBD correction on WAVE’s site and here’s an Associated Press correction on WHAS’ site—but corrections originating with the local TV stations are nearly impossible to locate online. In fact, I found only one: in 2010, WHAS 11’s Joe Arnold corrected one of his own election stories. It’s quite possible that I missed some online or on-air corrections, but when I asked all four TV stations for their policies on issuing corrections, only WDRB chose to share. Barry Fulmer, WDRB’s vice president and news director, told me that the station is “currently working on a new policy” and that all stories are corrected as soon as possible. As far as I could tell, WDRB’s corrections are not accompanied by any notification to the audience that changes have occurred. Compare that to WFPL, which posts notices of corrections at the end or right in the middle of stories, or The Courier-Journal, which posts corrections at the top. WHAS ran a story about college basketball betting in March that should have been prominently, publicly correctedat some point since then. Of course people make mistakes. Many daily TV news producers have little time to put together their shows, and technical problems or last-minute cancelations could mean a collapsing show only minutes before airtime. The producer and reporter responsible for this clip don’t even work for WHAS anymore, but WHAS as an institution ought to be accountable. Twice I emailed WHAS general manager Linda Danna about this fake story and received no response. It’s unclear if WHAS ever issued an on-air retraction. I’m sure that annoyed UK fans—or fans of decent journalism—would be interested in hearing a retraction or apology from WHAS. 'The Purge' Many Louisvillians were also annoyed with WHAS and other media organizations for what they viewed as irresponsible coverage of the “Purge” hoax. Nearly every online story featured two types of commenters: terrified citizens who took the hoax all too seriously and disgruntled readers who correctly accused the media of blowing it out of proportion. WHAS’ first story on the subject involved very little actual journalism. It contains numerous opinions from ordinary citizens and a few quotes from a Louisville police officer, who said that citizens should call the tip line and talk to their kids about social media. Not until the very end of the story do we learn that the exact same thing has happened in other cities with the exact same result: absolutely nothing. That should have been one of the very first facts in the piece, as opposed to quotes from random U of L students. WAVE was the first to report on the “Purge” hoax, suggesting that local police were trying to figure out if the poorly-made image was “a joke or a real threat.” Of course, the police knew it was a joke after finding the Iroquois High School student responsible for the original image, but no one would have known that if they tuned in to local TV news before Friday night. (My journalism students at duPont Manual High School were the first reporters to interview the teen hoaxer.) Local news organizations that covered the “Purge” hoax repeatedly mentioned that the rumor was transmitted via social media but seemed oblivious to their own role in spreading panic. Every single one of those news outlets has a Facebook account; every single one of their stories was widely shared and accompanied by numerous commenters declaring their intent to shoot anyone suspicious. One only has to recall the sad stories of Renisha McBride and Yoshihiro Hattori to understand why stoking these types of fears is at best grossly irresponsible and at worst a callous, cynical attempt to garner views, clicks, and ratings through deliberate fearmongering. Aside from issuing error corrections, news organizations can demonstrate accountability by releasing public apologies. Two famous examples are the New York Times’ lengthy self-criticism of its reporting on the Iraq war and the Lexington Herald-Leader’s “Front-page news, back-page coverage” series examining its role in underreporting the civil rights movement. Even Bill Lamb apologized for his ludicrous claim that the Courier-Journal had manufactured poll results. Local media organizations who played a prominent role in hyping the “Purge” hoax should acknowledge their responsibility for the fear and businesses’ lost revenue, but I wouldn’t recommend that anyone hold their breath while we wait for this particular form of accountability. Garlands & Gasfaces • Garland to WDRB for not getting caught up in “Purge” hysteria, other than mentioning a cancelled football game. Tamara Evans posted a detailed account of the station’s rationale for barely covering the story. Additional garlands to the News and Tribune, WFPL, and other local media organizations who refused to take the clickbait. • Gasface to the Courier-Journal and WFPL for still not covering the proposed JCPS tax increase, after having correctly deemed such increases newsworthy for the past several years. • Garlands to all the local media outlets who eventually covered the killing of Mike Brown and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo. I’ve argued before that local media organizations have an obligation to localize important national stories. Because similar police shootings have occurred in Louisville, some reference to the circumstances and protests surrounding the killings of people like Desmond Rudolph and Michael Newby would be appropriate in these stories. Miller is WFPL's media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here and find him on Twitter at @jaymills.