A clash of journalism values was on display last week when a Kansas City news director went on the air to defend his station.
KCTV news director Casey Clark took the unusual step of facing the audience to respond to critics who felt the station had been unfair to Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill in a series of stories about him in April.
Those stories were based on audio recordings that were allegedly secretly made by Hill’s fiancee, Crystal Espinal. The criticism came when an AM radio station released the entire secret 11-minute recording this week, leading some to cast doubt on the TV station’s credibility.
Clark said in a phone call to Poynter this week that he thought his critics were missing the big picture.
“This guy admits to punching a child in the chest,” Clark said, referencing a portion of the audio.
In the recording on which the TV station based its April reporting, the couple discuss their parenting, a child abuse investigation into their 3-year-old son’s broken arm and Hill’s 2014 conviction for domestic abuse.
Those stories led to the Chiefs suspending Hill indefinitely and the NFL opening an investigation.
While the newly released unedited audio does not exonerate Hill, it paints Espinal in a much less favorable light than KCTV’s original stories. Chiefs fans and pundits were quick to fault KCTV for minimizing the scrutiny of Espinal and placing the weight of their reporting on the alleged child abuse solely on Hill.
For those interested in the ethical issues surrounding this controversy, there are three general journalistic concerns of KCTV’s treatment of the audio:
- The TV station edited out a portion that sheds new light on a 2014 incident that ultimately resulted in Hill pleading guilty to a domestic violence charge and losing his spot on the Oklahoma State football team.
- The TV station did not post the entire audio on its website, denying its audience the opportunity to hear more of the conversation and the context.
- It’s not clear to the audience in the April TV stories that two separate segments of the audio are edited together make them appear contiguous, slightly distorting the context in a negative way for Hill and in a positive way for Espinal.
KCTV’s Clark said Thursday in a phone interview with Poynter that he was ambivalent about going on the air, but he did so because the criticism over the station’s editing of that audio was causing so much disruption within his own newsroom.
“I didn’t want to talk yesterday,” Clark said on Thursday. “I did so because it felt like it was divisive in our own newsroom. The most important thing is I wanted to express support for (reporter) Angie (Ricono) and support for how thorough we were with this investigation.”
Ultimately, the editing decisions were his, Clark said. By way of background, Clark explained that the station had been working on a story about Hill’s legal issues for weeks when the audio was provided by a source.
Initially, the source only gave the station permission to use the audio as background, Clark said. But when the district attorney announced he was closing the child abuse investigation because he could not determine whether Hill or Espinal was responsible, the source cleared the station to use the audio on the air.
Clark took exception to the criticism of his station editing the audio. He said he did not agree that the editing choices made Hill look worse. On the air, Clark said that the station did not release the entire audio clip because he worried it could jeopardize the source. And, he said, he didn’t release the portion of audio where the couple discuss the 2014 criminal case because that had already been adjudicated and he didn’t consider it news.
Clark said on the air: “Our feeling on it was that 2014 had been asked and answered. (Hill) pleaded guilty and he — up to this point — had never publicly claimed anything having to do with him being falsely accused, wrongly prosecuted. He pleaded guilty. The fact that they went off on a tangent and it sounds like a marital argument, it didn’t have relevance to, and I understand some people disagree with us, but we make editorial calls every day and that was an editorial call.”
This story comes against the backdrop of violent behavior among NFL players and the question of whether the Chiefs should keep the talented Hill or release him because of his off-the-field behavior.
In a part of the recording that KCTV originally used, Espinal tells Hill that his son is “terrified” of him. Hill responds, “You need to be terrified of me, too, bitch.”
In the extended recording, when Hill questions Espinal about details of the 2014 case, she refuses to answer him.
Clark said the station verified the audio by asking people who know both Hill and Espinal to confirm it was them on the recording.
In the original reports, the station did tell viewers it was airing portions of the audio, not all of it. The TV reports do not make it clear where the edits were made.
On the air, Clark said because he traditionally thinks of TV first, it did not occur to him to post the entire audio on the internet. That was a missed opportunity that probably would have prevented most of the turmoil this week.
Journalists and newsroom leaders would be wise to remember that a portion of the audience always desires more than an edited version of the news. Missed opportunities prompt critics to assign nefarious motives to journalistic choices. Ultimately, as KCTV is learning this week, those doubts damage credibility and drive a wedge between the audience and the news brand.