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Friday, April 18, 2014

Did KHOU 11 ride the ethics line to South Texas?

How a ride for a story subject from a KHOU 11 reporter has some other journalists seeing red

There are some Houston media folks who are a little upset about a recent story that spanned from the Houston area to Harlingen, TX and how they say one television station inserted itself too much into the equation.

It involves an alleged kidnapped teen girl who was taken to South Texas from Magnolia. Here is where the controversy starts, according to some media folks, as described in KHOU 11's own story:

The mom said she had no way of getting to Harlingen and asked KHOU 11 News Reporter Malini Basu for a ride. The trio picked up the girl at a police station early Thursday morning and then returned to Houston.

Malini Basu
Malini Basu
Complaints I received and posts on social media said this ride crossed the ethical line from "objectivity to advocacy." They add that by controlling the situation with a ride for the mother, the station was attempting to secure greater access and exclusive situations for its camera.

However other stations like KTRK abc13 did get an interview and video of the mom and daughter in Harlingen. You can see a channel 13 mic flag in KHOU's own video.

I am not a journalism ethics expert, so I turned to someone who is, The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online Al Tompkins.

"Why could cops not help the family," Tompkins asked in his response to

KHOU news director Philip Bruce explained in a statement to that it was not that simple:

The mother came to our reporter Malini Basu late yesterday, desperate to find a way to reach her daughter in South Texas, who was in CPS custody. The family told us no law enforcement or social service agency was volunteering to get her back home to Magnolia. The mom was frantic. She said they had no transportation or money to get to Harlingen. For whatever reason, she asked Malini if there was any way that we could help her. She came to us. We talked about it and decided that on a very human level, why shouldn’t we help if no one else would.

I told Malini we absolutely would not lock the mom and daughter away from other media---that’s not what this was. We disclosed immediately last night on social media that we were giving the mom a ride so everyone would know. We did the same thing when we were bringing them home this morning. We never told the mother not talk to other media---in fact, she talked to pretty much everyone on the phone and on camera when she got to Harlingen and then came home.

We got nothing more in Harlingen than anyone else when the mom and daughter were reunited. Everyone got the reunion and the return home. Everyone had a chance to talk to both of them. And everyone who wanted to interview and shoot pictures of them did.

That’s how we “inserted” ourselves as you describe it.

We all race to people’s homes when they face these tragedies and usually it’s all about showing their pain and misery and moving on. This time, a very sincere and desperate mother asked us to help. We stopped long enough to realize that giving her a ride was something a human being might do. We got no tangible competitive advantage from it—as I said, everyone got everything we got—or had the chance to. Everybody got the story just as quickly as we did. Did it compromise our objectivity---not unless you can imagine some positive reasons why a troubled child was abducted that we failed to report.

I’m not sure if the mom asked another reporter to help her. I am glad that we answered her plea, even if it made us a target for some. That’s their right to criticize. We did something real that made a huge difference for this family. I can tell you, when we look at that mom and daughter back together—we feel good. Sorry if others don’t.

Those out there in media land who were angry about the ride emailed me that other Houston stations have policies against this. So I asked KTRK abc13 and KPRC 2 if this is true. KTRK did not respond but KPRC did.

“We do not have a policy specific to that type of situation," Deborah Collura, Managing Director of News for KPRC-TV, told "We would look at everything on a case by case basis and do what’s best.”

My take is this is a murky situation. Television stations have helped out people for years. KTRK Consumer advocate Marvin Zindler built an entire station around this concept. You might argue that Zindler's work was not hard news like the case of a kidnapped girl.

Television news is usually criticized for exploiting people in the quest of the big get and ratings. Here is a case where a TV station helped out and got the story. I wasn't there on the ground obviously, but it seems like every other news crew got the story too, even if one of them provided a ride.


  1. The other station's that are upset are just envious they didn't think of it first

  2. Haters are always going to hate =)

  3. I just see it as a mom seeking help. The station has gotten calls seeking help on other issues and more so why is this any different. Myself the parent had no way of getting the child home and more so perhaps was comfortable with whom she chose.

    Other stations need to get over it.

    Myself couldn't see turning someone down in need no matter situation.

  4. I'm not real keen on this idea. There are times when stations are drawn into a story in unavoidable ways. (Criminals turning them selves in to reporters is not uncommon) The problem is that this was an avoidable situation. Now it looks like KHOU has a nice taxi service for families in need when someone is involved in a story they cover. You can bet that they'll be asked again and again for such help now whether it is needed or not.

  5. The station would have been villified had they turned the family down. As Marvin Zindler used to say, "It's hell to be poor!" I've been dead broke in my life and it is hell. I say good for KHOU!

  6. Guess you guys didn't get the Gannett memo. Advocacy is now part of the Gannett strategy to win viewers on the big stories. KING is getting viewers to buy gas cards and prom dresses for mudslide victims. Why just report the news when you can be part of it!

  7. Taking a page from Samantha Walker from Dirty Harry's The Dead Pool.

    Other stations are jealous!

  8. Local TV stations share a helicopter, why not have a pool car for crime victims and all the local TV stations will pick up the tab?

  9. Why not? Because being a taxi service is not part of the job.

  10. The only people who have any reason to care about this are media who either feel they got beat or were made look bad. This is such a who cares deal. Why don 't the complainers worry about getting rich off the misery of mostly poor, uneducated victims day after day? That's news? C'mon!

  11. Mike

    as you are a former 13 employee, you know that Marvin never spent a nickel of his own money or that of the KTRK's on helping people. Marvin recruited a team of Angels to help the unfortunate of Houston. Those Angels spent their own time and money helping those in need.

    There is a distinct difference in recruiting Houstonians to help and checkbook journalism.

    1. I previously commented that Marvin did use some of his own money to travel. A trusted source said that was not true. I have since deleted my previous comment.

  12. That is absolute BS. Marvin personally helped many needy folks. To me, this seems like a big stink over helping somebody who needed help fast. Kind of like giving a sandwich to a starving person instead letting their guts grind while you remain objective. I am no expert, but from what I see on TV news most nights in Houston, there is not a lot of deep thought going into much of anything. Don't the stations all pay the Texans football people for exclusive interviews and access? One of the stations is even offering money to watch some news guy in the morning. So is it checkbook only when some trailer woman gets a way to pick up her molested kid ? Not trying to be smart, but am I missing something ?

  13. A fellow coworker of mine took some pictures of a guy getting pulled out of that big apartment fire near Dallas and Montrose street. ALL the big national news stations paid for that. My friend is not poor either.

  14. Ask CBS News legend Bob Schieffer how he would handle it. He tells a great story about he answered the phone one day in 1964. It was an older woman looking for a ride from Fort Worth to Dallas. That woman, it turns out, was Lee Harvey Oswald's mother. The ride Bob gave her is largely responsible for where he is today. The reporter she actually tried to call, the man who missed her call, spent his entire career at the Star-Telegram while Bob rose to international fame.

  15. Some of us need to lighten up, please. The Mom needed help. She obviously felt Malini was approachable, so she asked her for help. No need to be cynical nor suspicious. Channel 11 disclosed that they helped, and at no time did this family appear to be exploited. More energy should be focused on helping this family get the help they need, rather than attacking those who helped.