Viewers Help WBIR Do The Right Thing

When Gannett's NBC affliate in Knoxville must make a tough ethical call or simply decide what's appropriate, it uses Facebook to see what its viewers think. “Instead of us all pretending we know what the viewers are thinking, we should ask them,” says News Director Christy Moreno.

When an arguing Knoxville, Tenn., couple accidentally shot their baby last June, WBIR staffers were divided over using a photo of the 6-month-old girl in their coverage.

“We couldn’t come to a consensus on whether it was appropriate to use it on-air, online or at all,” says Christy Moreno, news director at the Gannett-owned NBC affiliate. Seeing the infant’s picture, taken from Facebook, really rattled newsroom parents, who were concerned that viewers would be equally upset. Others believed “the victim needed a face,” Moreno says.

So, using Facebook, Moreno asked viewers for their opinions. Dozens weighed in, with the “overwhelming majority” said it was OK to air a picture of the girl, which is what WBIR did.

“Instead of us all pretending we know what the viewers are thinking, we should ask them,” Moreno says. “To think that we all make the best decisions in the universe without asking [anyone else] is a bit naïve on our part.”

Using social media to help resolve ethical issues – whether to air victims’ photos and names, 911 calls and the like – is a somewhat regular practice at WBIR, Moreno says.  It’s particularly useful is making tough journalistic decisions that don’t have any clear right or wrong answer.

On another occasion, WBIR asked whether to air a crash scene showing a car engulfed in flames.  


Moreno says she knew from past experiences that WBIR viewers are “very sensitive” to accident scenes. “People were very vocal. They told us absolutely do not air it. It would be tasteless.”

Feedback from viewers influences editorial decisions even when it isn’t asked for, Moreno says.

Recently, for instance, the station stopped reporting the name of a mother who left her infant in a car, which was subsequently stolen, after an outcry on Facebook, Moreno says. “We were bombarded by viewers, saying leave her alone.”

When WBIR staffers make judgment calls – airing 911 calls, for example — that test the limits of viewers’ comfort zone, the team uses Facebook to spell out the process that went into making such decisions.  “We just like to let them know why,” Moreno says.

Purists, such as Kelly McBride, Poynter’s expert on journalistic ethics, however, don’t like the idea, saying the average TV watcher doesn’t have the skills it takes to resolve journalistic issues.

“Making ethical decisions about journalism is a process,” McBride says. “When you crowd source a decision, you come out with the lowest common denominator. That’s just the math of it.

“I worry that it would eliminate all the other journalistic concerns [newspeople] should be paying attention to – the redeeming issue of the story and the challenges that a community needs to face or the fact that horrible things happen.”

“Sometimes the news should upset people,” she says.

McBride says she believes using social media to do things like discuss story angles with viewers is beneficial, but has limitations. “I think you could use social media to encourage debate in a community because that’s part of what journalism is supposed to do in a democracy,” she says. “But if you are just trying to use it as a litmus test for whether we should cover a story, that’s a cheap way to make a decision.”

Moreno, however, says accepting viewer input in no way usurps journalistic standards. It is just one factor in the decision making.

“At the end of the day we certainly know what is completely right and what is completely wrong,” she says. “But if it is something that’s not black and white, I want [viewers] to know that we are listening to them and sensitive to what is going to be on their TV.”

Moreno also says she knows the method is not foolproof.  “Sometimes, [the issues] are just as murky as when we started,” she says. “But at least at that point we can be transparent and show them how we make decisions.”

Moreno regrets not seeking audience input at times it might have helped her out. Orchestrating the coverage of last year’s government raid on the Knoxville headquarters of Flying Pilot J, one of the country’s largest family-owned companies, was one such instance.

Covering that story included reading on-air documents that were packed with curse words, leaving Moreno struggling with “how to put all the expletives on TV.” She decided to replace the actual curses with the word “expletive,” but “wasn’t happy with it. It sounded silly.”

“I assumed on their behalf that they wouldn’t like us saying ‘the F-word.’ In hindsight,  I just should have asked.”

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