MTN article raises ethics questions

Update: Right now, the article on the KTVQ site has a byline, listing the author as Aja Goare. Was it there the whole time? Perhaps is this a case of someone at KBZK just not updating the CMS correctly? That’s a possibility.

So I’m willing to walk back my qualms about the byline on the article. I changed the headline and text of this post to reflect that. However, I am not willing to walk back my problems with the reporting and ethics of the story. The same questions remain.


 

I was pointed to an article from MTN this morning that circulated on the CBS affiliate sites across the state, including our local station KBZK.

The article is about Visibly Unseen, a Billings-based group the article says wants to end human trafficking. KBZK tells us that two of its members are heading to Iraq to interview victims and “highlight the carnage left behind by ISIS.”

Ryan Mix and Britney Higgs will go to Iraq for a week and a half, but they wouldn’t tell the reporter where they are going or when — for safety reasons — and noted that the blonde Higgs will be coloring her hair brown and wearing brown contacts to disguse her foreignness.

A few things:

  • The article asserts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS has a monopoly on human trafficking worldwide.
  • The article asesrts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS is the largest buyer and seller of people on the planet. (Even if this is true, it does not necessarily follow that the former assertion is true.)
  • Perhaps only a typo? “Stories of stolen men, women and children sold and traded in the midst of a war zone.” That leaves a sentence fragment.
  • “Higgs and Mix hope to return home with a souvenir for change.” There is no indication what this means. It sounds like the unnamed reporter was trying to be profound but failed.
  • The image of the “all-girl” group (which is sending a man as one of its representatives to Iraq) is listed as an MTN News photo, but a cursory Web search reveals that photo and many others from the session posted to both Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page and to other relates sites belonging to Higgs or Mix’s wife, Janine.

However, there are some serious problems with this story, beyond the sloppy writing mentioned in the points above.

The whole feel of the article, claims about the do-gooders’ plans without any concrete detail about their trip, smacks of promotion — promotion for the group and its fundraising. (The link to the group’s website is inserted twice in a short story.)

The Montana Secretary of State lists Visibly Unseen as a public benefit corporation, which would mean that it’s likely a nonprofit organization. However, the corporation was only incorporated in April, and it has not yet filed forms with the IRS that I could find. It is registered to Janine Mix, a Los Angeles-native noted by the site Yellowstone Valley Woman as “Billings Best Dressed,” who is pictured in the VU image posted with the MTN story along with Higgs and an unknown third woman.

Given its newness, VU’s nonprofit status for fundraising is in doubt in my mind, as is its claim on its website that “Your generous donation is 100% tax deductible”.

Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page has a number of postings mentioning the group’s growing involvement with a preacher named Victor Marx, who operates All Things Possible Ministry out of California but recently passed through Montana. Indeed, Marx, whose site boasts that he is the fastest gun disarm man in the world, appeared recently in Bozeman and Visibly Unseen served as his film crew.

A later posting to Facebook notes that VU was picked to film a documentary of Marx’s trip to northern Iraq. This came immediately after a June 17 posting saying VU would be partnering with Marx on his nonprofit’s next “global high risk mission as the documentary film crew.”

From what I can see, it feels more like VU is serving as film crew for someone else’s documentary about human trafficking in Iraq rather than spurring its own project. That feels to me like a reporter who didn’t ask the right questions before putting this group’s representatives on air to provide a clear picture to viewers.

The most disturbing thing, to me, is that the article allows a group to make a public plea for money without the due dilligence of explaining exactly what VU plans to do with that money.

This leads me to wonder just what involvement MTN’s reporter may have with the group to allow VU to put it’s own unverified claims on air and online.

Back and forth over accuracy of KBZK report

Two statements reported in a television news story about the investigation into Belgrade High School principal Paul Lamb have raised the hackles of journalists across the Gallatin Valley.

A report on KBZK on the evening of Oct. 6 by reporter Brooke Boone told readers that police in Belgrade have completed their investigation into allegation of misconduct against Lamb and that they will request that charges are filed against him.

Lamb allegedly patted down several female students in private while searching for missing money.

Boone reports:

Police have completed their investigation into allegations of misconduct by Belgrade High School Principal Paul Lamb and say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.

Detective Dustin Lensing said a request for prosecution should be in the hands of County Attorney Marty Lambert by the end of this week.

Some supporters of Lamb did not agree with the report and, believing it to be false, contacted Michael Tucker, the editor of the Belgrade News, which is also owned by the Chronicle’s parent company, Big Sky Publishing.

Tucker, who also believed Boone had it wrong, published a piece labeled as “commentary” to the Belgrade News site on the afternoon of Oct. 7. In it, Tucker writes:

The police have yet to finish their report. It is still being written. The news report is false. No one has asked the county attorney to pursue charges.

It’s a difficult thing to say since we’re in the news business, too, but just because someone says the sky is green doesn’t make it true.

Tucker cites no sources in his commentary.

From there, things got a little bit complicated.

Emails and Tweets

Boone, apparently having read the Belgrade News commentary, took to Twitter on the defensive on the night of Oct. 7 and on the morning after.

There was also a tweet Boone apparently deleted in which she directly jabs at Tucker’s commentary.

deleted tweet

Just before 5 p.m. that day, KBZK news director John Sherer wrote to Michael Tucker. In an email forwarded to the Chronicle, Sherer calls Tucker’s commentary “false” and says it should be “corrected in your publication immediately.”

Sherer also writes that Tucker should have called the station before writing about the incident because the Belgrade News editor would have learned new facts from KBZK. “That would be good journalism practice before going to publication,” he wrote.

Tucker responded that no correction would be coming.

Clarification

A few hours later, at about 8:45 p.m., KBZK published a clarification written by Sherer himself.

In the clarification Sherer writes that the final investigation report into Lamb is not complete, only Det. Dustin Lensing’s portion of it, according to Belgrade police Chief E.J. Clark.

Whereas Boone’s original report clearly says police “say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges,” Clark told KBZK in its clarification that the chief wanted a prosecutor to look over the findings to decide if charges are warranted.

So what went wrong?

The conflict here is over two facts reported in Boone’s original story and then addressed in the station’s clarification:

  • that that the Belgrade police investigation is complete
  • that the Belgrade police will ask that charges be filed against Lamb

As I see it, the first is the result of a misunderstanding. Lensing likely said just what Boone reported, but perhaps Lensing didn’t have the whole picture or Boone didn’t see the whole picture.

The second statement is the result of an assumption. Clark explains in the clarification that the paperwork is referred to as a “request for prosecution,” even though he said the department intends to seek a prosecutor’s opinion on whether charges should be filed.

In her opening paragraph, Boone translated the submission of “request or prosecution” paperwork into “they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.”

If you’re looking at the words themselves. It’s a reasonable translation, but it’s a translation that also implies something more: that the police believe Lamb did something wrong and charges should be filed against him. Moreover, it implies that police believe so strongly that Lamb did something wrong that they’d speak that fact to a reporter to be presented on the news, even before charges are filed in court.

The wording says something about the guilt or innocence of Paul Lamb, when in fact police are making no such implications. They are only investigating.

Conclusion

At this point, I see this as a matter of hurt pride on all sides. Reporters have famously thick skin, but being accused of getting the facts wrong can get under that skin quickly, as Boone and Sherer showed with their defensive tones.

And when you accuse someone else of having the facts wrong, you should have the appropriate sources on the record. If Tucker had that, he didn’t put it in his commentary.

Also, when a story development seems really good, a reporter should stop, consider, and re-verify it with the source, asking it again to make dead certain it’s right.

We should always remember that people’s reputations can be at stake in these articles.

Today on the TV news…

One of our reporters found this while browsing the TV news stations’ sites today. I wish the couple luck, but is this really worth of posting to the TV news site? Labeled as “continuous news”?

screenshot

 

Also today in things that probably don’t belong on TV news websites:

screenshotKBZK lists an advertising job with the station in the news stream on its homepage — not differentiated as an advertisement or anything.

Also, Colorado’s “news leader” posts “breaking news” video: Watch a 10-pound block of ice melt live.

Vaccines and junk journalism

Good grief. KBZK posted a story yesterday with the following headline: “Experts: childhood vaccines deemed safe.”

Was this really news on July 1, 2014? Did we not know this one, simple thing before?

Granted, there are anti-vaccination people out there who rely on junk science and exaggerated anecdotes to form their opinions about the safety of vaccines. But, and this is important, they are the minority and they are — and let me be frank — fringe-case nutjobs.

By allowing the pretense that vaccines are unsafe — because otherwise why would we need a news story to say that they are safe — KBZK is pushing out the worst sort of click-bait junk journalism that is aimed to appeal to the controversy and not to the facts.

What worse, when they posted the story to Facebook, the TV station prefaced it with this inane question:

Vaccines and junk journalism

I won’t go into the reasons vaccines are safe; scientists have done that or me over and over again. More evidence of their safety are the decades upon decades of vaccines being used to reduce the number of deaths from diseases. Someone I know also like to point out that if you need more evidence of the hazards of life without vaccinations, visit a cemetery and look for baby and child graves from a certain time period. Then remember that you can vaccinate against polio.

For some reason in this country, people now distrust scientists. I think that comes in part because the Internet makes it so easy to publish nonscientific points of view to a large audience and make them look credible. Plus, the sins of some untrustworthy scientists have given opponents of science, who usually have a financial stake in the opinion they’re supporting or a total ignorance of how the scientific process works (or both), ammunition to bluster that all scientists are corrupt, money-grubbing quacks.

On top of that, in the pursuit of “balance,” journalism often forgets that a story isn’t balanced that gives equal time to nutcases who are demonstrably, scientifically wrong. By making it seem as if the anti-vaccination stance is as valid as the real science and then prompting people to discuss whether the “risks” of vaccination are worth it, KBZK is perpetuating dangerous misinformation.

Shame.

A missed reporting opportunity

non-newsIt must be sweeps week or close to it because the news stations in town are kicking it into high gear with special assignments and more reporting than normal.*

My favorites:

  1. Who ends up paying for the county’s search and rescue operations? The answer, unsurprisingly: county taxpayers.)
  2. A local church speaks out about a handwritten letter it received over the holidays containing “a hateful message towards church establishments.” (The police even circulated a surveillance image of the person who… dropped off the letter. No breaking in, mind you. Just dropping off a letter.)
  3. A story by Judy Slate on KBZK talks about a van that has been parked outside the Law and Justice Center in Bozeman for some time. The van is covered in signs criticizing one of the judges over his handling of parenting plans and a man’s divorce. The man tells the TV station that no one has criticized him for the sign-festooned vehicle. The sheriff’s office told them he hasn’t broken the law. Nor has the sheriff received any complaints about the van.

So… if no one if complaining and no laws are being broken, is the story really about the van?

I’m picking on KBZK a little bit tonight because I don’t pick on them often. They usually don’t deserve the ribbing. And I understand: the TV station picked a visual topic, something that would be easy to film. That’s natural, but the reason for the van, the man’s court woes, are given short shrift in the article, and I think that’s a shame.

Journalists are supposed to speak for people who are struggling against unfairness. We might not always accomplish it, but it’s still a good goal to have. If this man really is fighting an unfair situation (and we only have his word to go on), his story should have been told, not just his van’s.

*Don’t forget, we’re due an undercover bus investigation soon too.

West Yellowstone police being investigated

West Yellowstone Police Department

Our friends at KBZK are reporting tonight that the West Yellowstone Police Department and its veteran chief, Gordon Berger, are the subject of a investigation by the state’s Department of Criminal Investigations.

We don’t have the story, but rest assured we will tomorrow. In the meantime, the quote from a West Yellowstone town councilman says a lot to me about how things work in the more remote portions of this very large county (all quotation errors are sic):

“We kind of run our own we are a remote community and a lot of the things that are done down here aren’t subject to some of the things that go on in a bigger metropolitan area, we kinda run our own thing down here and sometimes it’s not always right and sometimes we’ve not always reached out for the proper instructions or the guidance that we need.” Said Town Councilman Greg Foresyth

We reported on issues with the department in early 2011, shortly after a majority of officers in the department signed a letter expressing “no confidence” in Berger.

The letter offered few details and interviews mostly questioned the chief’s leadership skills. The article also noted that Berger has been reprimanded several times, first in 1990 over a missing handgun and again in 1998 for an undisclosed reason.

Berger became chief in 2006. A year later, the city attorney wrote to him about parking tickets being given out, allegedly, unfairly. In 2008, a former animal control officer and parking official resigned, citing “the favoritism that is being shown to certain town residents.”

The town manager in 2011 told the Chronicle that Berger was a “good community officer” who understands “you can only police a community in the way it wants to be policed.”

 

Butte news station loses anchor

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Butte’s KXLF, the oldest TV station in Montana, no longer has a news anchor on site, the Montana Standard reports.

The station announced today that anchorwoman Laurel Staples opted not to renew her contract. Anchor duties will shift to Donna Kelley at sister station KBZK in Bozeman, the Standard reported.

Staples, a 1988 graduate of the University of Montana, started at KXLF in 2004. She has lived in Butte for 13 years.

Kelley, who grew up in Bozeman, started her TV career in Helena before working in Spokane and at CNN as an anchor for 16 years.

Tainting the news stream

I was reading the competition’s page on Facebook the other day, as I often do, when I noticed this posting on KBZK’s wall.

KBZK-1.png

It struck me as odd because KBZK is a Bozeman station. Why would it post about the Billings chamber? Plus, it was not the first time I had seen a post advertising Billings tourism.

(I know the answer is obvious, but bear with me.)

So I made a comment:

kbzk-2.png

The response was simple.

kbzk-3.png

Selling advertisements or sponsored posts inside a Facebook stream is not a new idea. Companies have done it ever since Facebook became a major platform where lots of people spend lots of time. And, yes, the Chronicle has debated whether to do this.

We opted not to put ads onto our Facebook wall. We did not want to, as I put it at the time, “taint the news stream.” I reasoned that we had earned all our fans on Facebook by providing news. Suddenly inserting ads would anger some followers and cost us the trust we’d earned.

That danger to trust is clear in the post on KBZK’s wall. The problem is that there’s nothing clearly marking it as an advertisement, so a reader might be confused and think that it was news, especially when you read the “as we’ve been reporting” part of the advertisement.

A big part of news ethics is keeping money issues out of it. The advertising side of the business doesn’t have a say in the news content. That way, the readers can trust that the news coverage hasn’t been massaged or shaped to please advertisers.

Is the separation perfect? Of course not. News organizations are still businesses after all, but we try to keep the border between the newsroom and advertising closed as well as we can.

The commenter who responded to KBZK’s answer on Facebook illustrated just the kind of reaction the Chronicle didn’t want to see beneath proposed ads on our Facebook page:

Yep, I’m a fan of KBZK for NEWS, not advertisements. If they continue, the value if diminished, and I will probably just unlike KBZK.

Sure, the Chronicle might be missing out on an opportunity to make money on Facebook, and in a time when the news business is struggling just to keep people on staff, that’s a hard choice to make. But our reputation and relationship with our news readers was deemed more important than money in this case.

It’s true that there are some advertisements out there that people really do want to see on Facebook, such as Groupon-type offers and special discounts for fans. And if the advertising side of the building wants to create its own page on Facebook and build its own fan base, I wish them good luck.

Perhaps the ethical quandaries faced by broadcasters are different. Never having worked TV news, I don’t know. In the meantime, the Chronicle will keep it to just the news on Facebook.

Montana Tea Party using social media tools to connect

Montana Tea Party members are using social networking tools to connect with each other and spread their message, according to KBZK’s Erin Yeykal.

Local Tea Party leader Henry Kriegel told Yeykal that they use social media like Facebook and YouTube to bring people together and not as a substitute for in-person human interaction.

Montana State University political science professor David Parker said that social media sites bring politics back to a more personal level, which is akin to the way people interacted with politics in the 1800s.

Parker:

“Politics used to be very, very personal in the 19th century. Politics was very much a show, and people were intimately engaged in this, and they came to these rallies and barbeques and spent the whole day there. And when the 20th century happened, and radio and television expanded, that intimacy was lost. Now these new social networking tools in a lot of ways are creating that intimacy and closeness again through the Internet.”

Read Yeykal’s full report here.