(WLOS) The Legal And Ethical Issues?

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(WLOS) The Legal And Ethical Issues?

Post by Fred_Vobbe » 06-28-2005 03:38 PM

What Are The Legal And Ethical Issues In WLOS Marijuana Story? You Decide
By Robert C. Gabordi
Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times executive editor

An editor got a tip the other day that we might want to look into such and such a case in federal court, that it involved questionable behavior in the gathering of news at WLOS television.

A couple of telephone calls later, we found out the case involved an allegation that a TV reporter prodded or suggested to a source that he smoke marijuana - an illegal drug - on camera.

The reporter was putting together a local angle on the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on medical use of marijuana.

To state the obvious, WLOS, as the major television outlet in the region, and the Asheville Citizen-Times, as the major newspaper, are competitors. We compete for advertising dollars and news stories. Both are successful businesses and both news staffs are committed to their communities and professional in their standards and reporting.

At times, we have put aside the business and journalistic competition to collaborate on issues we feel are in the best interests of the community. Most recently, we have filed suit together against the city of Asheville and Buncombe County over what we both believe are illegal meetings regarding the soon-to-be expired water agreement. We have also worked side by side to help promote important community causes.

Reporters for our organizations often sit next to each other covering events. They see each other at the scene of news stories. Sometimes, they are the only reporters there. Most at least know each other.

So now we were faced with an unusual story involving our biggest competitor as well as professional colleagues. No matter what we did with it, there were sure to be critics. What we did, of course, was to publish a story Sunday across the top of the front page.

OK, so what would you do?

On the one hand, some might question why this story was a big deal. All that happened was a reporter asked an admitted consumer of marijuana if he would smoke a little pot for the camera. The guy took two hits - and claimed to not inhale, by the way - of what he later said might not have been pot at all.

Those thinking this way would focus on the competitive aspect: This was a chance for the Citizen-Times to embarrass its major TV competitor in the market. We could have ignored it, or if we felt we had to write something, play it on an inside page.

A poster on our forum pages put it this way:

"If WLOS were to get a picture of all the men that smoke pot in WNC, they'd have to wait years for the camera industry to developed a wide angle lens big enough to get the shot. Then, if you add the women to the picture, you might as well take that from a satellite. Now that's a fact, Jack. What's the big deal?"

On the other hand, downplaying the story would bring out the critics who would focus on our collaboration, the people who believe such as things as the "Mainstream Media" exists as a single entity and that we all think and behave alike. How would we have played this story, they might ask, if a member of the City Council were accused of enticing a citizen to use drugs? Or better, how would we play it if it were a major conservative talk-show celebrity?

Furthermore, there is the issue of how we hold ourselves accountable to the public, with "we," in this case, being the media in general. Are we, because we carry a camera or a notepad and pencil, above being held accountable for our actions?

Of course we are not. Many news organizations are very careful to train their employees that they must not violate laws in the course of doing their jobs. The courts have been clear on this, although rulings usually have involved trespassing or similar cases. Reporters doing research on the Internet have sometimes run afoul of the law, too. Asking someone to smoke pot for the purpose of shooting a picture is a new one for me.

It is another example of how the legal system has become more interested in how we gather news than what we say or write, moving well beyond concerns over libel or slander.

The First Amendment is not - and should not be - a shield for illegal or unethical behavior.

WLOS will have to decide for itself whether it believes it behaved ethically. Most organizations believe journalists must not alter reality but observe it and report it. If in a very rare case anything is "staged" for the purpose of illustration, it must be carefully explained to viewers/readers. The man on camera seen smoking pot also claims to have been promised confidentiality, and that did not happen.

Whether the law was broken is a different question and one now before Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore. The U.S. attorney's office has referred the case back to him. He must also decide the "big deal" factor: Even if he believes the reporter broke a law, is it so clear-cut and worth the time and money for the state to prosecute when questions of First Amendment rights are sure to be raised? If there was an offense, is it worth all that?

Editor's note: You can decide for yourself whether what the television reporter did was a big deal. A transcript of the court hearing is available at http://www.citizen-times.com/assets/pdf/ B05007624.PDF.
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