Being a reporter with a clean conscience
by Brian Graves Banner Staff Writer
Dec 22, 2013 | 410 views | 0 0 comments | 34 34 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shephard Smith learned it the hard way.

The FOX news anchor always had a lot of fun covering car chases on his afternoon program.

I’ve always liked Shep because he has always reminded me of David Brinkley, one of my journalistic heroes.

Brinkley always had the ability to let the viewers know the story he was delivering was either irrelevant or insane and he knew the viewers know it as well.

Smith always got a kick out of these live car chases and, frankly, I did too as he always covered them “Brinkley style.”

It was like an episode of “The World’s Dumbest Criminals,” and you always knew they were going to get caught in the end.

But that all came to a sudden and unexpected end one afternoon last fall.

The runaway suspect stopped his car and left the vehicle and began running on foot.

“He seems to be acting irrationally,” Smith observed.

The man then stopped and Smith’s voice could be heard yelling, “Get off it! Get off it!”

It was an order that came too late.

Despite the five-second delay the network had put in place to avoid showing a tragedy on live television, the unthinkable happened.

There, during the midafternoon hours on live television, the suspect shot himself.

The network immediately went to a commercial and Smith returned with an apology.

He explained the system that had been in place to avoid such a thing happening and apologized.

“It was insensitive,” Smith said. “And, it will never happen on my watch again.”

True to his word, it has not happened again and what was once a joyride and seemingly fun in a newscast came to a screeching halt.

I think Shephard Smith is one of the best news anchormen today, but even he makes mistakes and much to his credit he stepped forward, took responsibility and made the changes necessary to see such an event never happened again.

Smith’s fault in this instance is he fell victim to the popularity of reality and sensational television.

It is without a doubt the job of news to report reality, as horrible and tragic as it may be. But, there is no room for sensationalism.

The only reason for sensationalism in journalism is to make people stop and look, much as traffic slows down when passing a wreck on the side of the road.

It is so much easier to get an audience with suppositions, rumors and opinions instead of the facts, which may not be as fascinating or interesting.

The reporters who have the job of telling you what happened have the responsibility to do just that — tell you exactly, to the best of their knowledge, what happened, and not what appears to have happened.

That task must be done without any guessing or embellishment. If those two characteristics are applied to a straight news story, it is irresponsible.

The journalists and publications who print stories with unnecessary and sometimes untrue amendments just for the sake of getting the attention of an audience make me yearn for the day when those who continue doing that can be charged with malpractice.

Using methods of sensationalism in journalism can cause as much harm as an incompetent surgeon in the operating room.

It is our job to transcribe the stories of the human race.

It is sometimes a very joyous job telling of the triumphs and goodwill of which humanity can often be capable.

But there are times when it is tragic, sad and disappointing, but has to be covered nonetheless.

Those who find it their assignment to cover those stories must keep in mind there are people involved. These are people with friends, neighbors and families.

The first facts and visuals can be deceiving and it is not a reporter’s duty to make assumptions. Reporting assumptions can be hazardous to any of the persons who are part of those stories.

I can relate a humorous example of this.

My pastor is one of the best people I know. He has been my pastor for more than 10 years and I know him to be as fine a person as one can possibly be while on this earth.

A few years ago, he was on his way back from Nashville to Oak Ridge late one night when the car he was driving began to have trouble.

“I knew God has a sense of humor when the nearest place I had to pull over was in front of a liquor store,” he told me with a laugh. “But, I wondered what people would say if they saw the preacher’s car parked in front of the liquor store.”

If some of the same journalistic ethics had been used on my pastor’s story as I saw it played out during a local story in the past few weeks, the headline would have read “Local Pastor Staggers Out of Booze Hut.”

I rarely lose my temper, but I must admit on that long Saturday, as the recent local story began breaking, I lost my cool seeing other “journalists” hit their respected websites with things that I knew were either not fully vetted and proven or simply not true.

At least, I know the facts I gave to our newspaper’s readers were just those — the facts. Not what I thought, not what it looked like, not what it might be. It was just the facts as I confirmed them at the time.

I hope the others got all the audience they wanted.

If they did, I guess it means being irresponsible with the truth brings one success in journalism.

And if that holds true, I’ll never be a successful journalist. But at least I’ll be one with a clear conscience.