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

UPDATE MARCH 03, 2015
Malini Basu leaves KHOU 11 for WFXT Boston

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 mikemcguff.com.

KHOU news director Philip Bruce explained in a statement to mikemcguff.com 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 mikemcguff.com. "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.

UPDATE MARCH 03, 2015
Malini Basu leaves KHOU 11 for WFXT Boston


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