“60 Minutes” and later tabloid journalism began the push for ”in your face” confrontations between a reporter and a person considered caught red handed. Now it is the norm for investigative reporters to use ambush interviews after laying out tons of evidence against a company or person who may have crossed the line. Don’t get us wrong, these interviews can be very effective in this type of package. What’s interesting is how the concept is bleeding over into everyday news coverage more and more.
Case in point, the Casey Anthony trial down in Orlando. We won’t spell out the details of the case because everyone in the news biz has some idea of the trial and surrounding media circus. We are taking a closer look at recent headlines about an interesting walk shot into the courthouse with reporters, photojournalists, and attorneys. In case you missed it, watch the video courtesy of WESH TV and the Orlando Sentinel. “Courthouse Confrontation” Make sure you let the video play out all the way to the end. There is a lull, but in the end it gets interesting again.
Now look at some of the headlines on the internet after the walk shot you just watched. The Orlando Sentinel called it “ A Bizarre situation with reporters…” The Florida News Center headline read, “Anthony attorneys are annoyed by Orlando media.” Now consider the News Blues headline, “Orlando reporter harasses Casey Anthony attorney.” See a common link? In all of these headlines, the sympathy characters were the attorneys, not the journalists.
Now, let’s consider why fellow TV journalists should care that the reporter gets little love in the coverage of the walk. It’s an example that shows when there are confrontations, the public tends to sympathize with anyone but the journalist. Yes, there are some exceptions especially in investigative reporting. But, remember, we are talking about general news coverage here. The reporter is described as the aggressor and gets less sympathy in coverage of a situation like this.
Partner this with the fact that, increasingly, news managers are trying to differentiate coverage by “being more aggressive” and you have an entirely new set of ethical issues to consider. There’s also the matter of there now being so many cameras around that your actions can easily go viral on the internet. The incident we just linked you to above did, and quickly too.
So here’s what you need to consider when you get into an intense situation.
- What is your stations news philosophy?
- How far is too far? (i.e. – What is management’s threshold?)
- Will you be typecast? (Will it hurt your professional image?)
Your station’s news philosophy must come first because it is the best gage you will get on how far you can take questioning and still have management’s backing. Some newsrooms are very against confrontational interviews. Some thrive on them. News philosophy also determines how you phrase everything you say. For example, some stations encourage the use of slang to try and relate to the viewer. Some are completely opposed to it and would be horrified if a reporter used a word like “jerk” in this type of setting. Some want action no matter what. They want you to yell. Others define that as highly unprofessional.
Which leads to our next point: You need a clue as to management’s threshold. Managers cannot and will not give you black and white answers about this type of situation for legal reasons. You can get good reads though, by discussing scenarios ahead of time with a boss. The video of this reporter covering the Anthony trial can also be a discussion point with a manager. Ask your managers what they think of the situation and try to talk it out.
Take another look at the video of this walk scene and consider your personal reaction to it. This is a good opportunity to gut check whehter you are being true to your view of what being a journalist is all about. In this day and age, you have to worry as much about the next possible boss reacting as you do your current news director. There is so much turnover, you need to be true to yourself in these situations. Many times I saw reporters act in a way that seemed very unlike their journalistic style. When I would talk with them later, I got the same answer each time: “I thought that’s what the ND wanted me to do.” Most ND’s will push you and tell you to be “aggressive.” Most bosses also understand that “aggressive” for one type of person is different than for another. Remain true to your heart and your carefully cultivated professional persona. You do not want video of your out of character attempt to impress the ND, to go viral on the internet. It will live forever in the digital world and may come back to bite you one day with another ND. Even if only the other stations in town see you doing an ambush type interview, this is a small biz. The other ND’s in town will soon know how you act in the field. Often ND’s considering hiring you, call your competition to learn more about you and see if you are a commodity. Keep that in mind. You are trying to impress all the ND’s in town every day. The only way to do that and not go crazy with stress is to stay true to your personal limits on what’s acceptable. You do not want to be typecast as something you are not.
One final thought: if something like this happens to you in the field, call your immediate manager right away. This is very important. You want to give management time to come up with a reaction before they start getting calls. We suggest calling your boss even if you aren’t the TV station directly involved. Just witnessing and recording the whole thing, could mean your ND will get a phone call. The last thing you want is your ND or GM getting blindsided, by something you knew about, then having to “save face” for you and your station because of an ambush style interview, no matter how common they’ve become.