August 6, 2004

Every once in a while, a source lies to a journalist. Earlier this week, on live TV, a judge lied to the viewing audience and to journalists covering a hostage standoff in order to save a man’s life. She told them she was quitting her job.

The false announcement was made Wednesday, when reporters and photographers had gathered outside an office building in downtown Jacksonville, Fla. They were there to report on a gunman’s intrusion into a law office on the 13th floor of the high rise and the evacuation of the occupants, including a large day care center.

Police identified the gunman as John Knight and charged him with several crimes, including kidnapping and aggravated assault. He has pleaded not guilty.

WJXT news director Mo Ruddy said that during the standoff police, approached a crew from the TV station and asked them to come into the secured area.

From behind the police lines, WJXT reporter Staci Spanos announced a development live on the air, then introduced Duval County Judge Sharon Tanner. In a short speech, Tanner told the audience she was resigning. The unexplained announcement left the reporter on scene and the anchor back at the station speculating about its veracity.

Turns out the judge was only pretending. The kidnapper inside was holding a lawyer at gunpoint. One of his demands was that Tanner resign on live TV. He was angry about the way she handled a 1999 domestic case against him. After her fake resignation, the kidnapper let his hostage go. No one was hurt.

A happy ending for everyone?

WJXT’s Ruddy told me Friday that when police asked for their help, the newsroom staff discussed it quickly, and she gave the go-ahead. “A life was at stake,” she said. Police did tell the WJXT journalists the kidnapper had demanded the judge’s resignation on live TV, but Ruddy and Spanos did not know the resignation was fake when they agreed to broadcast it.

Ruddy said she doubts that knowledge would have changed her decision to air it, though. “I’m proud,” Ruddy said.

So it’s a happy ending for everyone except those who work in Jacksonville journalism and worry about the industry’s credibility in the eyes of the public.

Object, even lightly, to a public official deliberately lying and you run the risk of sounding like a cold-hearted monster who doesn’t care about saving a man’s life. Say nothing, and you let the public think journalists team up with cops and other government officials all the time, telling lies and withholding information — but only for a good cause.

Yet this happens frequently. Although the choices aren’t always as stark as what the television crew in Jacksonville faced while live on the air, journalists are walking on a tightrope as they balance their roles as public servants, public watchdogs, and truth-tellers.

So what’s a journalist to do? Every situation is different. But if you ask yourself and your newsroom a couple of questions away from the heat of the moment, it’s easier to see the clashing values.

The government and the newsroom

What should the relationship between the newsroom and a government agency look like? Notice, I said should. Had I asked what the relationship does look like, I know what the answers are. They vary from antagonistic to cozy to wary. But what should we be working toward as we create and nurture connections with public officials?

As journalists we share many values with government employees. We both serve the public. We both help turn the wheels of democracy and justice.

Yet our jobs revolve around informing the public and holding the government accountable. Government agencies and individuals have very different goals. Cops pursue public safety. The tax collector is concerned with fair and efficient collection of money. The elementary school principal wants to make sure all the second-graders can read and the fourth-graders know their multiplication tables.

Sometimes in the course of informing the public, we help the cop, the tax collector, or the school principal. We run the name and picture of the guy wanted for murder. We publish stories on changes to the tax law. And we tell parents how their kids’ schools are doing.

…We oversimplify the newsroom-government relationship. We claim we are independent. Sometimes the process of gathering the news makes us co-dependent. But a healthy relationship is a more complicated, nuanced thing — interdependence.Most of the time, we oversimplify the newsroom-government relationship. We claim we are independent. Sometimes the process of gathering the news makes us co-dependent. But a healthy relationship is a more complicated, nuanced thing — interdependence. My buddy, Joe Davidson, a columnist for BET, commentator for NPR, and former Poynter Ethics Fellow, taught me that word.

We need them. They need us. We have our goals. They have theirs. Sometimes we get along. And sometimes we butt heads.

But sometimes the government officials we write about deliberately distort the truth in order to serve their goals. It’s not always clear how we should react. I’m not talking about covering for corrupt or inept officials. I’m talking about when a detective says, “Tell the public no witnesses came forward, even though one witness has talked to us.”

What complicates our decision is we rarely articulate how complicated our interdependent relationship with the government is. In our independent mindset we say, “No way” to such a request. In our co-dependent mindset, we say, “OK, but just this once.” In our overly-dependent days we say, “Alright, but keep it quiet.”

The journalist who recognizes the complexity of an interdependent relationship might panic at first. She realizes that all the options compromise journalistic values. And the first thing she might say is, “Um, I have a lot of questions. I better call the office and get some other people in on this decision.”

I’m not sure what decision I would have made if police had asked me to cooperate. A man pointing a gun at another man’s head is no small thing. But I hope that my competitive instincts would take a back seat to my journalistic common sense.

And after it was over, I would capitalize on the opportunity to let the public see how complicated this newsroom-government relationship has become. I would talk about the way the tone of the relationship shifts, depending on the story of the day. It’ messy, this business of gathering the news. But it has to be this way.

In the heat of the moment, on live television, with a gun at someone’ head, would I be able to remember all this and make a good decision? Probably not right away. But could I make the best of it, could I let the public in on how I made the decision and why it makes me so queasy, even if everybody else thinks this is a happy ending? Yes.

That’s the beauty of daily and even hourly journalism. There’s always another chance to do it better.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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