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Journalism Ethics 101

Memo to WBBM: Why it's wrong to pimp a 4-year-old and put him on TV


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When I listen to the unexpurgated video of Channel Two's cocky four-year-old, I don't hear a tiny idealist who can't wait to grow up to be a cop and fight the bad guys. I hear a child amazed and delighted by the words coming out of his mouth.

I hear a giddy kid being pimped by a stranger with a mike and a camera.

You may hear something different. You may be angry at WBBM for the reason most of its critics said they were angry at it: the way the station edited the video turned a spunky young lad any mother would be proud of into a wannabe gangbanger. To quote a random poster on a random forum after the June 30 video went viral, "It's disgusting; the kid said 'He wants to be a cop' then the media tries to portray him as the stereotype."

But WBBM's big mistake wasn't editing the video to misrepresent the kid; it was airing the video in any fashion whatsoever. As a TV host named Art Linkletter discovered decades ago on a radio feature called "Kids Say the Darndest Things," little kids will say anything under the sun if encouraged, and God only knows whether they mean it because they don't know themselves. Little kids have a way of saying amazing things out of sheer delight in their own bravado.

Three weeks after Channel Two aired the video, Bob Butler broke the story of its ethical lapse on the website of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in Oakland, California. Butler, ironically, is a freelance reporter for the CBS radio station in San Francisco and until he was laid off in 2006 was national diversity director for all the CBS-owned radio and TV stations—Chicago's Channel Two being one of them.

Butler tells me he heard about the WBBM newscast from a friend in Washington, D.C., who apparently heard about it from someone at a competing TV station in Chicago. Butler tracked down the newscast from a monitoring service, watched it, then talked to a WBBM spokesman who said the video had run just once and shouldn't have run at all. Beyond that, the station had little to say.

As Butler explained in his story, the four-year-old had been interviewed after two teenagers were shot on the street in Chicago's south-side Park Manor neighborhood. He offered a transcript.

Boy: "I'm not scared of nothing."
Reporter: "When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?"
Boy: "No."
Reporter: "No? What are you going to do when you get older?"
Boy: "I'm going to have me a gun!"

That's the last we see of the four-year-old. An older bystander is heard from, and then the newscast returns to its anchors. "That was scary indeed," says Steve Bartelstein. "Hearing that little boy there, wow!" says Susan Carlson. This inane chatter has been cited by commenters as secondary evidence of the newscast's witlessness. (Bartelstein was fired from WBBM a week later.)

The primary evidence is the boy himself. Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute, told Butler, "We have long been worried about the ways in which the media helps perpetuate negative stereotypes of boys and men of color, but this appears to be overtly criminalizing a preschooler." A clinical psychologist in Los Angeles told Butler the boy "sounds like a gangbanger in waiting, which plays into the racist stereotypes of young black boys."

What none of these critics, Butler included, knew yet was that Channel Two hadn't shown its viewers everything. Soon after Butler's story was posted, he tells me, "I got an e-mail from somebody saying, 'They're lying to you. It ran more than once and it ran out of context, check this out.'" The tipster was correct—the video had run on the 4:30 AM and 6:30 AM newscasts. And attached to his e-mail was the video as WBBM apparently had received it.

On July 27 Butler posted a follow-up on the Maynard Institute site and posted the new video on YouTube. Again, he offered a transcript. It apparently picks up right after the boy said, "I'm not scared of nothing."

Reporter: "Boy, you ain't scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?"
Boy: "No."
Reporter: "No? What are you going to do when you get older?"
Boy: "I'm going to have me a gun!"
Reporter: "You are! Why do you want to do that?"
Boy: "I'm going to be the police!"
Reporter: "OK, then you can have one."

As published, the differences are bothersome enough, and I question the first line of Butler's transcription. (The video on YouTube begins abruptly, but to my ear what the reporter told the boy was actually something like, "Well, that's what I like to hear. You ain't scared of nothing! Damn! . . .")

Butler's second story was even more critical of WBBM. It began: "A Chicago television station is being blasted by civil rights leaders and news media professionals for airing edited video of a 4-year-old boy that took his statements out of context, violating the basics of journalism ethics."

I wouldn't call anything the boy had to say a "statement." He replied provocatively to a reporter egging him on. (Watch the video, listen to the exchange, and decide for yourself.) He'd stopped talking, the reporter wanted more, and the boy announced he intended to become a cop. For all anyone can tell the idea had popped into his head for the first time in his life. The only thing halfway certain about the conversation is that an unnamed four-year-old was having the time of his life.

That's why the video didn't belong on the air in any form, either sliced and diced or unedited. There is no meaning to give to it. Tot excited by gunfire on his block! If there's more to the story than that I'm missing it. The incident itself wasn't newsworthy—neither of the two gunshot victims was seriously wounded, and channels Five and Seven, which received the same video from the unnamed freelance videographer, tell me they didn't use it at all.

With me as with Butler, WBBM refused to flesh out the details. The station wouldn't name the freelancer who interviewed the boy, and it wouldn't comment on a story I heard: that there was talk in the newsroom of building the afternoon newscast around the video, asking sociologists and other professional types to weigh in, but the idea died when planning editor Deidra White, who is black, protested putting the newscast on the back of a four-year-old and said, first, let's look at the entire video and see what we've got. (I reached White, who was on vacation last week, and she wouldn't discuss the matter.)

The other network stations who got the video also wouldn't tell me who shot it. The lean, mean news shops of the modern era don't want to alienate the freelancers they depend on; and besides, this freelancer wasn't guilty of anythinghe hadn't done the editing.

But if not guilty, he is (to my ear) as much an agent in the four-year-old's performance as Art Linkletter was in the hilarious outbursts of his toddlers back in the day.

A recent New Yorker profile of Michele Bachmann described how Fox anchor Chris Wallace apologized to viewers who didn't like it that he'd asked Bachmann if she was a "flake." Said Wallace, "Since in the end it's really all about the answers, and not about the questions, I messed up. I'm sorry."

This apology makes no sense. "It"—meaning journalism, I guessis most certainly about the questions; that's where reporters work their magic. Usually the magic winds up on the cutting room floor, but this time some of it made its way into the WBBM newscast. You be the judge of its effectiveness.

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