December 5, 2007

Addressing ethical issues in the newsroom doesn’t just mean talking with reporters — it often means starting a dialogue with viewers, too, says Forrest Carr, news director at WFTX-TV, a Fox-affiliated station in Cape Coral, Fla., and a 2002 Poynter Ethics Fellow.

To give viewers a better sense of their role in Fox 4’s coverage, Carr created a “Viewers’ Bill of Rights” and a “Viewers’ Voice,” which gives viewers a chance to discuss their thoughts on the station’s recent coverage of events. In the Viewers’ Voice forum, Carr addresses viewers’ comments about particular news items and explains the reasoning behind the station’s coverage of them.

Below, in the continuation of an earlier Q&A about the ethics behind difficult interviews, Carr explains the Viewers’ Bill of Rights, Viewers’ Voice and the importance of viewer advocacy. We invite readers to offer feedback and suggestions as to how they involve viewers, readers, online users, in their ethical decision-making processes.

Tenore: Does your newsroom have particular guidelines/standards for handling tough ethical situations?

Carr: Our newsroom lives and dies by a written set of ethical and journalistic values, which we call the Viewers’ Bill of Rights. Internally, we try to train our folks to be aggressive about red-flagging ethical concerns. We have a lot of ad-hoc meetings, and some formal ones, to discuss concerns that come up. We hold workshops from time to time to teach ethical decision-making, based on the Poynter (Bob Steele) method.

Every story or newscast critique asks whether we conducted ourselves as we promise. And probably most important of all, we practice public accountability. Follow this link to see all of this in action. There are links on that page for our Viewers’ Bill of Rights, for submitting feedback, and for reading ongoing discussions and station responses.

Tenore: I’m intrigued by the Viewers’ Voice/Viewers’ Bill of Rights. Did you come up with the idea for this? Can you provide an example of when WFTX used the Bill of Rights to handle a recent ethical issue?

Carr: The Fox 4 Viewers’ Bill of Rights evolved from an earlier project by the same name launched in April, 1999, at KGUN9-TV, which at that time was the Lee Enterprises station in Tucson, Ariz. (Interestingly enough, after changing hands twice, it’s now owned by the Journal Broadcast Group, which also owns my current station, WFTX-TV).

We uphold democracy, giving voice to everyday people, in all their diversity, and helping them to hold the powerful accountable.The KGUN9 position was my first time at bat as a news director. I had long been dissatisfied with the state of TV news. But I never lost faith in the belief that it should be possible to succeed in the ratings by airing, and properly marketing, a high-quality, ethical news product, especially if done so with the same focus, consistency and zeal with which the tabloid stations create and market what they do. Toward that end, I wanted to create a document that would plainly state to the public the values they could expect our station to live by and demonstrate. But at the same time, I did not want to simply re-invent the wheel, as it were.

There are plenty of perfectly good codes of ethics floating around, and I felt that the last thing the world needed was another “me, too” ethics document. So, I talked my bosses into sending me to Poynter to attend a week of ethics training. After listening to Bob Steele, Al Tompkins, Jill Geisler, Victor Merina and many others speak about and teach ethics, I became convinced that the key to an ethical breakthrough lay in that fourth major point in the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Be Accountable.”

Bob Steele taught that the proper outcome of the ethical decision-making process is to come to a decision that you will be able, and willing, to explain and defend to your colleagues and to the public. If that is true, then the converse also must be true: If you are not wiling to explain and defend your decisions publicly, then you can’t claim to be acting ethically — or at very least, any such claim would be substantially weakened.

Secondarily, feedback from viewers over the years had led me to believe the public dislikes and distrusts the media largely because they perceive us as lacking compassion or respect for other people.

 

After thinking this through at Poynter, I then went back to Tucson. We solicited more public feedback with the stated intention of writing a mission statement. We then formed an in-house committee, of which I was the chairman. And with committee guidance and also with the approval of my bosses, I wrote the KGUN9 Viewers’ Bill of Rights. It was the first such document by that name to be published.

The document made a minor splash at the time, making news in the local papers and in many of the trade magazines that cover TV news and/or journalism. It spawned a few copycat efforts at TV stations around the country, one or two of which lifted the KGUN9 copy verbatim without attribution (you gotta love TV news). I got invited to speak at the Dupont Forum about it. Harvard’s Nieman Reports asked me to write an essay about it. Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach wrote about it in their widely-respected book, “Elements of Journalism.” I also was invited to write an essay about it to be included in Michael Hilt and Jeremy Lipschultz’s book, “Crime and Television News,” which is still in print.

Of course, in TV news, the critically important question is: “How did the ratings do?” The KGUN9 Viewer’s Bill of Rights and its on-air viewer feedback component were only a small part of what we were doing at that time. But the philosophy embodied in the document — viewer advocacy — was at the heart of everything we did in the newscasts. Viewer advocacy merits a lengthy discussion in itself — but long story short, it’s a philosophy dedicated to upholding democracy by advocating the rights of everyday people to be heard, and helping to ensure that they get a response from the powerful. With all of that in play, we went from a distant #3 in the ratings to a tie for #1 within three years.

In 2001 I went to WFLA in Tampa as news director. One of the things I wanted to accomplish was to take that same philosophy and put it to work in a major-market, converged media environment. It was much tougher — with independent-minded newspaper and Web platforms in the mix, the coordination of values was a challenge. But we did publish a document called the News Center Pledge. It was the first-ever multi-platform statement of news coverage principles — and I don’t believe there’s ever been another. Alas, not long after I left the station in 2005, they quietly shelved it. But once again, the ratings were interesting.

At the time of my departure from WFLA-TV, we were #1 for news in every time slot where we presented news. Again — I don’t claim that this is because of the News Center Pledge per se. But I do believe that Viewer Advocacy, of which public accountability is a part, definitely played a role. It’s also worth noting that our sister newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, enjoyed a spurt of circulation growth around that time, in defiance of national trends. TBO.com also grew by leaps and bounds.

The Fox 4 Viewers’ Bill of Rights is offered with similar motivations. I believe it’s a better document than the previous two.  My company does not authorize news directors to talk about the ratings, but let me just say that we have been very pleased with the results, so far. Viewer Advocacy is the driving philosophy behind our news product. I did a presentation on that at last year’s Poynter Ethics Fellows gathering, and it was well received. We also won a regional Edward R. Murrow award last year with a series of stories that showed the philosophy in action.

So, if I had to summarize all of the above: We uphold democracy, giving voice to everyday people, in all their diversity, and helping them to hold the powerful accountable. We state what we stand for.  And we hold ourselves accountable to the public.
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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
Mallary Jean Tenore

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