By Tracie Powell
When it comes to the news industry, clicks are increasingly the coin of the realm. This is especially true for local television news. Take, for example, Washington, D.C.’s CBS affiliate WUSA 9 News, which aired a segment last week that was light on news, but racked up plenty of clicks when it went viral.
The segment features veteran broadcaster Bruce Johnson and his camerawoman on assignment, trying to get information about an alleged home invasion and hostage situation. A woman at the residence asks the news crew to leave, and assaults them when they don’t. WUSA 9 played the story big: Not the home invasion angle, but the journalists coming under attack part. In setting up the segment, Johnson reports that he doesn’t know whether the woman was one of the victims of the alleged home invasion, and she is never identified in the video clip.
What the segment may lack in news value, it makes up for by exploiting racial, gender and class stereotypes and by being sensational; and it has left many media observers wondering why it aired in the first place.
“I think this is a pathetic example of journalism,” said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who specializes in journalism ethics. “The journalists don’t know who this woman is or what her relationship to the story is. The reporter and the anchors do the exact opposite of what journalists are supposed to do. They made the story more confusing, for no good reason.”
WUSA’s news director Fred D’Ambrosi defended his decision to air the video to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi (D’Ambrosi didn’t return phone calls from allDigitocracy). “If the definition of news is something unusual happening, this was certainly something unusual,” D’Ambrosi told Farhi. “Bruce has been a reporter for 35 years, and this has never happened to him. . . . [Showing this] might help people understand what journalists go through. I wish I knew more about the woman who came out, but you have to make the best call under the circumstances.”
Johnson agrees with his boss, and so does Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association in Washington. Cavender told Farhi: “Based on what I saw and what I learned of the story, I would have gone with it.”
But what exactly did viewers see? What did they learn? And even though the station has the power to air whatever it wants, was it ethical for WUSA 9 to do so? Many of those commenting on the video, including fellow journalists, root for the news crew and poke fun at the woman who may or may not be a recent crime victim, raising even more ethical questions about the station’s goal of airing the clip.
A study on images of black women released last month by Essence Magazine found that the “angry black woman” is one of three negative stereotypes all too prevalent in the media. The unidentified woman in the video fits the myth of the angry black woman almost to perfection: Hostile, hysterical, ranting and aggressive, no matter the myriad emotions — if in fact a victim — she may have experienced the night before. Viewers simply do not know, and this is precisely why the video should not have seen the light of day.
Jackie Jones, Chair of the Department of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore, said beyond the stereotypical imagery, there was nothing to have been gained from airing the story.
“Usually when someone is cussing you out and threatening you, you get in the truck and leave,” said Jones. “There was nothing to be gotten out of that story and once he did the stand-up, he should have been through. All that said, since no one was hurt and it wasn’t clear what this woman’s role was in the house, I probably wouldn’t have run the story at all, except that there had been a standoff and possible hostage situation.”
Phyllis Fletcher, an editor at KUOW Public Radio, said viewers simply aren’t given enough information about what really happened. Nor is there enough information for it to be a story, she added.
“The reporter, and ALL due respect to the brother and the position he’s in, admits that he doesn’t know whether the young woman had been a victim in the crime the news crew sought to report. That is a serious issue,” Fletcher wrote in a Facebook post. “Yes, it’s true she doesn’t represent herself very well in the video. But we don’t have context for who she is or what the news staff said outside of their edits. She may not even be 18. The focus of this segment is not even actual news. The station anticipated, correctly, that it would go viral though.”
In the end, WUSA 9 probably accomplished exactly what it wanted. After all, there is more pressure than ever for news directors like D’Ambrosi to rack up clicks, often at the expense of true engagement with audiences.
Poynter’s McBride said she suspects WUSA 9 “just wanted to show the video of this woman making a fool of herself because it is sensational.” McBride wondered: “Why not do some reporting? Why not knock on the door and ask her if she wants to talk about what happened at her house? Why not get more information from the police?”
Answer: Because good journalism isn’t necessary when all that’s really wanted are clicks.