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On Sweating the Small Stuff
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“Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is the title of a best-selling book that appeared almost 20 years ago and quickly became part of pop culture and language. It is probably good advice for lots of situations, but not so much for journalism.

Two letters I received this week brought the saying to mind.

A viewer in New York, Craig Paul, wrote to say that in the news wrap on the Aug. 3 edition of the PBS NewsHour “you discussed that there was an unsuccessful vote to defund Planned Parenthood. You mentioned the secret video but did not qualify it in any way. Hasn't that video been shown to be highly edited and not actually showing what they claim it did? I am confused since you did not put any qualification on the video. I count on you to be fair and balanced! Please clarify how that video could be mentioned without at least mentioning the question into its validity.”

I sent the viewer’s query to the NewsHour and the response from Executive Producer Sara Just was: “We covered the video in greater depth when it first broke:”

That’s true. But that was on July 17 after an anti-abortion group released videos of a hidden camera interview. There was one video that had been edited and one that was unedited. The edited one was used as political ammunition for politicians seeking to defund Planned Parenthood. The edited video has been the source of journalistic and political controversy ever since.

It seems to me that the fact that an edited video that changed the meaning of some of the secretly recorded conversations and was widely seen merited the use of at least a word or two in the brief Aug. 3 update. My guess is that this was noted by more than one viewer.

On Black Lives Matter

The other letter came from a viewer, Jim Neeley in Austin, Texas, who questioned why three very short but powerful sentences were cut from an Aug. 4 NewsHour film clip of remarks made by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) as a prelude to a discussion about increasing homicides in U.S. cities, including his native Baltimore.

Neeley wrote, quoting Cummings in the film clip: “The only people making good now are the morticians. And I say our city is better than that. It's not just the murders and the shootings. I'm begging you, put your guns down.” But in Cummings' remarks referencing the riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death while in police custody, Neeley pointed out that Cummings also said, “I hear over and over and over again, 'Black Lives Matter'. And they do matter. But black lives also have to matter to black people.” So, Neeley asked, “Why did you edit out the last paragraph in your report? Does it have to be white killing black to make your ‘newscast’?”

I’ve asked the NewsHour for a response and will post it if it arrives.

I think the answer to Neeley’s question would certainly be “no.” But he is not alone in questioning aspects of coverage when it comes to the extraordinary streak of killings that has gripped several American cities, the racial issues and tensions that accompany these killings and, especially, the relationship between the police and the black community.

In some of these incidents, it is what one might consider “the small stuff” that some viewers see as missing in some reports that causes them to question whether there is what some of them call an “agenda” lurking behind the presentation of stories.

Let me say, first, that I would not agree with that. The NewsHour, to its great credit, has almost certainly presented more coverage, and in-depth coverage, of the escalating homicides, racial tensions and police shootings or other law enforcement incidents involving white officers and blacks, especially since the riots that broke out in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer one year ago.

The Chiefs Speak

Just this week, on Aug. 4, a lengthy interview by co-anchor Judy Woodruff with the chiefs of police in Milwaukee and Saint Louis produced what seemed to me the most candid and informative analysis from their working point of view of anything that I’ve seen with respect to all the factors—especially easy guns, easy courts and what Milwaukee Chief Edward Flynn called “endemic intergenerational poverty”—behind the escalating urban murder rate. The chiefs offered pull-no-punches responses in an appearance well worth catching up with if you missed it.

Similarly, a segment on July 30 with co-anchor Gwen Ifill and the Cincinnati police chief in the aftermath of the shooting of Samuel Dubose by a white officer—who was not a member of the city police force but rather that of the University of Cincinnati—made for informative and candid television.

The killing of blacks at the hands of white police is a big story and demands intense coverage. In some cases the circumstances seem clear cut. But many are complicated. And so as stories continue to be reported, leaving out something that may have been reported earlier or not at least suggesting the complicating factors, some viewers will take exception.

In recent months, I’ve had a small but steady stream of messages on these issues—maybe 30 or 40. That’s not a lot, and some appear to be racially motivated. But that level of messaging usually suggests an issue that resonates with a larger group. What interests me is that there are certain themes that you can see in these letters that deal with aspects that would seem to me to be relatively easy to deal with journalistically. In other words, on such an explosive and emotional subject, presenting stories that are beyond reproach in terms of content enhances credibility and diminishes vulnerability to charges of an agenda.

Some Letters

For example, the use of a particular picture of Michael Brown, a close-up wearing headphones—which is widely used by TV networks generally, not just PBS—is taken note of by some viewers as a benign way to accompany and frame a complicated and seminal event in the past year’s violence.

Here, in part, is what a viewer in Garden City, N.Y., Robert Tucker, wrote recently: “Reference was made to the Ferguson incident and a picture of 'Gentle Mike' was shown. The picture appears to me to be one of him when he was about 14 years of age, but he was about to graduate High School at the time that he attacked a police officer in his patrol car and tried to grab his gun. These facts were unearthed in the grand jury proceedings, which included eye-witness testimony from six black people. Showing a picture of a young innocent-looking kid who was not present at the attack is not only journalistically unethical but under the current circumstances, inflammatory as well. This is not the role for journalists…the fact that I feel constrained to describe the six eye-witnesses as black is sad, I should be able to say 'six witnesses' and I lay this sad fact at the feet of the media.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: The picture of Brown I believe was taken about a year before he was shot and killed in the encounter with police. So a picture of him, even if it was a year old, is certainly acceptable. But again, in these cases where the circumstances of the shooting are complicated, it is always good, in my view, to make room for the extra few words that explain that and that also help keep pictures in context. The picture of Brown that was used in the July 30 broadcast was used just fleetingly, but it was used in conjunction with a protest rally using the “hands up, don’t shoot” rallying cry that emerged out of the Brown shooting. But that description was later rejected in a Department of Justice report.)

The black-on-black aspect of the violence equation also figures in viewer letters. Here’s one from Herb Ely of Phoenix, Ariz., referring to the July 31 NewsHour broadcast featuring a brief news summary report on escalating homicides in Baltimore.

“Yesterday, your broadcast concerned the atrocious statistics of increased deaths and injuries from violence in Baltimore. Missed was any indication of who is committing these crimes and that these grim statistics are repeated in many of America's largest cities. These deaths and injuries are largely the result of young Black on Black violence. Don't these 'Black Lives Matter?' Apparently not to the activists, nor the media. Of course there is no justification for increased police violence against Blacks. Apparently there is no political currency in expressing outrage over what is happening in our inner cities. Protests today are limited to police violence.

“The media, especially PBS, has an obligation to report, comment and analyze the Black on Black violence. We know the names of those killed by police. But who speaks of or reports the names of those killed and wounded in this city violence. It is no less than outrageous not to do so. As someone involved in the early civil rights movement, including drafting the civil rights laws in Arizona, I strongly believe activists need to have a larger focus and the media needs to expand its coverage.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: Again, this was only a very brief report as part of what is called "the news wrap" round-up at the beginning of the July 31 program.  A few days later, the Milwaukee Police Chief Flynn responded to this kind of point on the Aug. 4 broadcast. “In my city,” he told Woodruff, “if you’re an African-American, you are 18 times more likely to get shot than if you are white. You’re nine times more likely to get murdered. The levels of crime within these challenged neighborhoods are extraordinary. And it’s that disparate victimization to which the police respond and sadly too often are criticized because they’re there in the first place.”)

A viewer in Orinda, Calif., wrote to say, in part, “all references to blacks committing crimes have been removed but ‘white police officers killing unarmed black men’ is repeated. Muslim is not used at all when they bomb or kill innocents.”

A viewer in Lakewood, Colo., wrote to say about black youth and police misconduct: “Are there problems? Of course, but there are thousands of police and police departments that respond to these incidents created by violent black youths in an appropriate manner, even when confronted with downright dangerous street criminals.”

Accurate, to a Point

Back on May 29, a viewer in Dallas, Texas, wrote to complain about a comment on Washington Week when the investigation into the fatal shooting of a black youngster in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, was asked about by a journalist on the program and host Gwen Ifill interjected to explain that Rice was “the 12-year-old boy who was playing with an air gun and was shot.”

The viewer wrote: “In fact, the toy gun looked just like a real pistol based on published pictures. In addition, I believe that neighbors had called the police for help as they thought the child had a real pistol. Of course the shooting was a tragedy, but the police officer was confronted with a young boy waving around what looked like a real pistol, and only had about a second to decide what to do.”

(Ombudsman’s Note: My sense is that Ifill was just trying to remind viewers about the case and it was accurate to say what she said. The New York Times lead on the story when the shooting took place reported that the boy was fatally shot “while playing with a fake pistol.” But the newspaper stories all also included details of what had happened earlier. The point here, again from my perspective, is that these issues are, literally, explosive with what my guess would be a fair number of readers, and a few extra words to provide some context is always worth it. Sometimes it may be hard to do, especially with television’s time constraints. But my sense is that what may seem reasonable concision to journalists is often not seen that way by a fair number of viewers).

Posted on Aug. 7, 2015 at 4:09 p.m.