How the news media polices itself

Early this afternoon, I’ll be live blogging two “cases” at a meeting of the Minnesota News Council, a group in which members of the news media voluntarily participate. Here are two cases. Before the council starts debating it, you decide. Then we can compare notes this afternoon. (Narrative provided by the News Council)

Case #1

Tony Sheda called the News Council in December 2007 to complain about a news story (Bob: I couldn’t find the story on the station’s Web site.) that was broadcast on Duluth station KBJR-TV. In July 2007, his son Adam had been fatally shot just days after returning from service in Iraq. In November 2007, KBJR-TV reporter Barbara Reyelts referenced Adam’s death in the context of the “The War at Home,” a story on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Iraq war veterans.

Tony Sheda complained that the story tarnished his son’s memory and was sensationalized. “Adam may have been lonely, but he didn’t have a ‘death wish,'” Sheda told the News Council.

In January 2008, Barbara Reyelts, who is also KBJR’s news director, offered a response that cited sources for the story. Her sources included police records, statements from the county attorney, and Adam Sheda’s MySpace page, which read “my plans when I get back are to drink until my heart stops.”

Hearing Questions

1. Was it fair to use Adam Sheda as an example in a story about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

2. Was it fair to report that Adam Sheda had a death wish based on a posting he made on his MySpace account?

Case #2

Steven Devich is the city manager for Richfield, MN, and complained to the News Council after a story aired on KSTP-TV featuring a letter he wrote to a Richfield citizen.

A Richfield resident complained to Devich about noise coming from an air exchange generator located in the roof of the Richfield Middle School. Devich wrote back to the citizen, addressing their concerns.

KSTP-TV obtained a copy of Devich’s letter of response, and featured quotations from it in “Richfield Residents Frustrated Over Noise,” a news story they did about the noise coming from Richfield Middle School.

Devich complains that he was not contacted for comment by KSTP, and was unable to explain the contents of the letter. As a result, Devich believes the story was misleading.

Hearing Question

1. Was KSTP’s usage of Steven Devich’s letter misleading in a 4/20/08 story about noise levels coming from Richfield Middle School?

  • Alison

    Are there fines if the complaints justified?

    If stations can be cited for stories that are ‘misleading’, perhaps most would be wise to avoid science and health stories altogether.

  • Bob Collins

    No, there are no fines. It’s sort of like the mortality meetings in hospitals (I don’t know what they call them) when all the docs get together to evaluate the performance of the medical team on a particular patient. The goal isn’t punishment as much as education.

  • Lesli

    Case #1 Q2. Was it fair to report that Adam Sheda had a death wish based on a posting he made on his MySpace account?

    Social networks like MySpace and Facebook are changing the way people communicate their personal thoughts and feelings, particulary younger folks who’ve “grown up” with the resource. My guess is that Adam was used to expressing himself this way, with the assumption that the only people reading it would be an audience of his family and friends. Was it fair for Ms. Reyelts’ to use this source to support her story? Sure it’s fair; apparently Adam didn’t set the controls in his MySpace profile to limit access, which means the information was publicly available. Was she being sensitive to the situation by using this as a source? Not in my mind, but sensitivity in the media is an entirely different topic.

    We’re in a unique phase of the social networking phenomena: individuals are extremely open about their personal thoughts—often more than they would be in face-to-face conversations—and the whole world can eavesdrop if they’re so inclined. I’d certainly want the media or law enforcement to take action if they came across postings or blogs that posed a threat to the public. At the same time, I’d hope the media would weigh the benefit of citing such a personal source when other sources are available to support their story.

  • bsimon

    Seems like, given the info we’ve been provided, the media in these cases did some jumping to conclusions. The phrase “When I get home, I’m going to drink until my heart stops” could be an indication of a deathwish, or it could be the kind of phrase a couple army buddies use when they want to express desire for a hangover inducing buzz. If this is the sole source of a journalist’s conclusion that he had a deathwish, it seems like pretty shoddy journalism. Same for the conclusion on PTSD. Is there some evidence that the guy was diagnosed with the disorder, or did the journalist find a guy recently back from Iraq who died a violent death at home and think ‘aha! poster-boy for PTSD!’ Is that a journalist reporting a story – or a journalist proposing a hypothesis & finding a story to prove it with?

    Last one- again, based on what we know, it seems sloppy. If they’re going to quote the letter in a story, they should try to talk to the author firsthand & make sure they’ve got the right story. Not doing so makes it seem like they have an agenda.