Local news champion, creator of the 'The Viewers’ Bill of Rights,' has died

I promised my old friend Forrest Carr that when he died, I would write about what he hoped would be one of his enduring contributions to journalism.

His death this morning from cancer was not unexpected, but it's painful all the same. This local TV journalist of more than 30 years publicly documented his two bouts with cancer on his blog. He was a Poynter ethics fellow. Co-workers often said he was direct, a tad intimidating and honest to the core.

But he will probably be best remembered by the greater media community as a fierce champion of ethics and transparency in journalism. His best-known contribution to that effort was "The Viewers’ Bill of Rights," a statement of principles that served as a sort of "product guarantee" to the public.

Carr carried those principles with him through a career that saw him transition from jobs as a radio reporter, a television reporter, producer and middle manager. When he became a news director at KGUN in Tucson, Arizona, Carr wrote the bill of rights, which he explained in a 2001 piece for Nieman Reports:

We solicited the public’s input for a statement of principles. We weighed that input with our own notions of journalistic duty, then published the Viewers’ Bill of Rights. It provides a product guarantee, a warranty, and a return desk. We appointed a viewer ombudsman, one of only two we know of in the United States, and we invited our viewers to keep us honest through regular viewer feedback segments.

Some news professionals find the idea that viewers should be involved in the journalistic process to be profoundly disturbing. We’re the pros, not viewers. We know what information is good for the public because we’re trained to figure it out. Viewers should trust us to lead them through this complicated and bewildering endeavor called news.

His Viewer's Bill of Rights, which he used in every newsroom he ran (Tampa, Fort Myers, Tucson and Albuquerque), included the following provisions:

You Have a Right to Know
Our station will ask the tough questions, conduct the investigations necessary, and give the timely information needed to serve the public interest and protect public safety.

You Have a Right to Ethical Newsgathering
We subscribe to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which requires journalists to seek the truth and report it, to minimize harm, to act independently, and to be accountable.

You Have a Right to Privacy
Our journalistic duty and the public’s right to know often require us to place people and organizations in the news who don’t wish to be there. We will never do so in a cavalier or insensitive fashion and will always carefully consider privacy concerns as we weigh the importance of a story. We will never stalk or hound the innocent victims of crime or tragedy.

You Have a Right to Positive News
Much of the news our journalistic duty requires us to cover is by nature ugly. We will not filter out such stories in any way. However, we will take extra steps to find and report positive or uplifting stories which reflect the true character of life in our community. We will meet regularly with members of our community in order to discover those stories in person.

You Have a Right to Relevant Crime Coverage
We recognize that an over-emphasis on crime coverage would harm our community through portraying it in a false light of negativism. We will cover crime in such a way as to provide context, meaning, perspective and relevance. Before airing any crime story we will weigh its newsworthiness with the following questions:

  • Is there an immediate danger or threat to the public?
  • Is immediate action required?
  • Is the safety or welfare of children involved?
  • Is there a larger issue with public policy implications?
  • Does the story touch, or should it touch, hearts in our community?

Does the story spotlight a new crime trend or issue at the neighborhood level of which residents should be aware?

You Have a Right to Solution-Oriented Journalism
When appropriate we will be “On Your Side” and attempt to find or spotlight solutions to individual and community problems. We will help empower our viewers to better their lives and community.

You Have a Right to Hold Us Accountable
We will invite and respond to public input and feedback on our newsgathering decisions and philosophy. Our Viewer Representative will serve as a viewers’ champion within our newsroom. We will present and respond to viewer feedback within our newscasts on a regular basis. We will eagerly and diligently investigate complaints, publicly admit any mistakes, and correct them prominently.

Carr wrote several articles for Poynter.org. A 2007 piece started this way:

How does this statement grab you: The media, and local TV news in particular, are more important to the daily workings of democracy than the ballot box itself. But we squander most of that potential, primarily through preoccupation with other concerns.

Reams have been written about the "poor quality" of local TV news. We're all off chasing car wrecks, spectacular fires, police pursuits, stabbings, shootings and dime-a-dozen muggings, when we ought to be covering politics, local government, civil rights, diversity, the environment and so on. If critics are to be believed, the full list of our failures is far longer, but this will do for starters.

Let me say right now that I am not a believer in the "news as medicine" philosophy. People will not sit still for newscasts that are not engaging, compelling and relevant to their interests. Newscasts must find a way to appeal to a broad audience or they simply won't survive. But the concepts of ratings and journalism do not have to be mutually exclusive.

In his 2007 essay, Carr wrote this passage, which summarizes the hours upon hours of conversation I have had with him about the state of journalism over the decades.

Part of what drives this is personal. I was a viewer before I was a journalist. As the former, I always thought journalists got it wrong — that the First Amendment was not a right nor a gift bestowed on journalists from on high, but rather a covenant with fellow citizens. In naming journalism as the only commercial enterprise to receive constitutional protection, our nation's founders expected something in return. Journalists' part of the bargain is to help uphold democracy. Advocating the right of common people to be heard is more important today than it's ever been. People speak at the ballot box once every two years for the most part. But through the modern news media, those in power learn a little bit about public opinion every day. That process has a continuous effect on public policy.

Friends and former co-workers took to Facebook to tell stories about Carr after his wife broke the news of his death.

Deborah Carr, Forrest's wife: "It is with a very heavy heart, that I report that my dear, beloved Forrest Carr passed away early this morning after a valiant battle with cancer. Forrest loved life, and, in many ways, had a larger-than-life personality. Even at the final moments, he was smiling and sharing his unique brand of humor. I want to thank you, friends near and far, for your prayers and your kindness to Forrest and I these past difficult months. Forrest made many friends along his life's journey, and I know he would want me to tell you how much he loved you all. Peace be with you."

Samara Sodos, former reporter for WFLA Tampa: "There are people who come into your life and simply make you better than you were before. That is who Forrest Carr was to me. He passed away this morning, but his spirit remains forever boundless. I always felt lucky to have crossed paths with him, to have learned from him, to have been challenged by him. He made me proud to be a reporter at WFLA."

Steve Andrews, investigative reporter for WFLA Tampa: "The world lost a source of positive energy today. Forrest was a friend, teacher, mentor, leader who enjoyed working hard and laughing while he did it. His booming laugh is still, at times, imitated in our newsroom. He had a passion for news. He clearly understood the watchdog role the media played in our society and its importance. When all hell broke loose in a newsroom, he was never shy about, first carefully putting down his Dr. Pepper, rolling up his sleeves, jumping into the fire and pounding out the news on a keyboard. We worked very long hours together, had our disagreements, but we laughed so hard at times, it triggered asthmatic episodes.

Essays by Carr:

Carr also was a prolific writer, having authored novels and broadcast news textbooks.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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