Monday, September 18, 2006

A fine line

Pep talks don't have much of a place in a newsroom.

And in my three years at the Collegian, there's only one situation that I can remember ever calling for one.

I spent part of the spring semester as the Collegian's metro editor (the job that I'd been after since I was a freshman), which meant that my staff of reporters covered news ranging from Borough Council decisions to downtown crime.

Part of being a police reporter means covering some of the tougher stories that come up every semester: the rapes, the murders, the people who go missing.

Unfortunately, at a school of nearly 42,000, a few students die every semester, whether in car accidents, by drug overdoses or in other tragic incidents. And whenever something like this happens, it's the job of the police reporters to pick up the phone and do one of the hardest things I've personally had to do in my life: Call the family of the deceased and ask them to talk for a few minutes about their loved one.

It's something that you never really get used to it.

So, as the metro editor, I always tried to give my reporters a pep talk before they made that phonecall.

I told them things like, "Let the family talk, don't ask a whole lot of questions," and "Give them an opportunity to call you back if they aren't ready to speak to the media right away."

Most of the time the reporter would take a deep breath, dial the phone number and immediately apologize to whoever answered the telephone.

I'd stand close by and wonder who to feel worse for: my reporter or the family member who answered the call.

But in light of recent events, I wouldn't blame the public if they had little sympathy at all for the reporter in such a situation.

If you haven't heard, there's a bit of a controversy surrounding CNN's Nancy Grace, the host of an interview show famous for putting its participants on the public chopping block.

Grace has become the center of a media firestorm since harshly questioning the mother of a missing two year old about her actions on the day of her son's disappearance. Her producers decided to air the Sept. 7 phone interview despite the fact that the woman, Melinda Duckett, 21, committed suicide hours before the show was scheduled to broadcast earlier this month, according to the Associated Press.

Grace all but accused the woman of playing a part in the mystery, and Duckett's family has said her suicide was the result of the interview with Grace.

So the issue for journalists, especially those of us with credibility and integrity, is: How much is too much? Where is the line when it comes to questioning the parties involved in high-profile stories?

And, of course, why the heck do people watch shows like that?

It's not hard for those of us in the business to surmise that Grace's interviewing style has more to do with ratings than it does with actual, legitimate journalism. But I'm not sure the average TV viewer has the background knowledge to know that.

And I'm worried that the result of a scandal like this will only worsen a trend that's bothered me for a while. The public has lost so much faith in the media already, and this type of thing only makes it worse.

It might be a while before anyone knows whether Melinda Duckett's decision to kill herself had to do with guilt connected to the disappearance of her son or whether Nancy Grace's interview actually pushed her over the edge.

In reality (and Nancy Grace's show is not reality), it is the role of the media to question and report the facts so that the public can come to its own conclusion. It is not the job of any journalist to insert opinion into what is supposed to be unbiased coverage.

So maybe that's the lesson of this whole thing: Nancy Grace is no journalist and should not be given the credibility and respect of one.

If anything good comes out of this tragedy, it might be that the public gets a better idea of what good journalism is and what sensationalism for the sake of ratings looks like.