Never Mind Facts, It's a Great Story

COMMENT

April 10, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

Two weeks ago, after an American woman asking a young boy for directions was set upon by an angry mob of about 800 people and nearly stabbed to death, the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Americans thinking of traveling to Guatemala.

Guatemalans believe U.S. citizens are kidnapping their children and harvesting their body parts for transplants. The sight of an American adult anywhere near a Guatemalan child apparently can whip a crowd into a murderous frenzy, the State Department warned.

During the same week, I attended a forum at Western Maryland College in Westminster about local television news and heard a news director defend airing a story about a Jerome Stanfield, a Baltimore man who claimed on "The Montel Williams Show" to have raped 90 prostitutes. Even though Mr. Stanfield denied he committed those crimes moments after the show ended, WMAR-TV led its newscast that evening with Mr. Stanfield's self-contradictory story.

Even though further reporting by his station and others -- including my colleagues at The Sun, Michael Ollove and David Zurawik -- revealed that Baltimore police did not have any reports of a serial rapist preying on local prostitutes and that Mr. Stanfield was a disturbed man, Jack Cahalan, WMAR-TV's news director, told the forum audience he believed Mr. Stanfield's wild claims were news worth broadcasting.

"I am happy with the way we handled the story," he said.

I am sure the Guatemalan reporters and editors make similar comments about their stories on the supposed kidnapping of children by Americans. None of these have much to do with reality.

Mr. Stanfield's claims may have been acceptable on the freak and geek shows of daytime television where fiction and fact are interchangeable. They should not be acceptable on an evening newscast whose aim is to convey truthful information to its audience.

Faced with the contradictions between Mr. Stanfield's lurid stories and the Baltimore police claiming they don't have any evidence of a serial rapist, the first reaction should have been to "kill" any story until more reporting had been done.

Every day reporters get tips about explosive stories, but few of them ever get printed. If somebody says that a politician is on the take or that a teacher is sexually abusing students, those charges won't necessarily make the next day's newspaper. They have to be substantiated. Most of the reporting that my colleagues do is finding additional information to corroborate stories we are told. Those that check out make the paper; those that don't stay unprinted.

Newspaper and broadcast reporters shape public perceptions. While surveys show that fewer people believe what they read in newspapers and magazines or watch on television, their views of the world come from the news stories they read, hear and see. Unfortunately, the duty to inform is becoming a secondary consideration. The more important one is making money.

It is true that non-profitable newspapers and television stations don't stay in business long, but it is disturbing to hear a panel of television journalists refer to ratings as the driving force determining the contents of their news broadcasts.

Richard Sher, a reporter and weekend anchor at WJZ-TV, said stories are designed to grab people's attention: "We have to get people while they are in the midst of making dinner, dealing with screaming kids and a lot of other things."

So what ends up on the air? Anything that will hold our attention for about 1 1/2 minutes, the average length of a television news story. News about a serial rapist, true or not, will certainly draw more viewers than a story about government budget difficulties or a zoning dispute.

"You should never let the facts get in the way of a good story" is an old joke in the news business. But it is a cautionary joke. Only a few of the best stories we hear every day hold up once all the facts are known. That is one reason fiction is usually more engaging that non-fiction.

It has been more than a decade since Janet Cooke's story about a 10-year-old heroin addict appeared in the Washington Post. It was a gripping tale with graphic details of the boy's stepfather helping him to shoot up. There was one fundamental problem -- nothing in the story was true. Before Ms. Cooke's fraud was exposed, she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the most coveted journalism award in the United States. However, that award was her undoing because a number of her colleagues began to look for answers to a number of questions in her story. The answers they found exposed Ms. Cooke as a better fiction writer than journalist.

If journalism is to serve any purpose, it must be to report reality as best we can. When news organizations print or broadcast questionable stories, they aren't doing anyone a favor. They might as well be in Guatemala repeating stories about Americans kidnapping children.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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