A Prime Case for Newsroom Diversity

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Bob Butler
August 11, 2011

Pressure continues to mount on a Chicago television station that aired edited video making it seem as if a 4-year-old boy aspired to a life of crime.

Professional journalism groups and the NAACP have criticized CBS station WBBM for violating one of the basic tenets of journalism ethics. Now, U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., whose district includes part of Chicago, has directed his staff to investigate the incident so he can decide whether to take action.

WBBM aired a story June 30 about a shooting in which two teenagers were wounded. It included video of the 4-year-old saying he wanted his own gun. The station edited out the rest of the boy’s statement that he wanted the gun because he wants to be a police officer.

Through communications director Shawnelle Richie, WBBM management admitted that employees made a mistake airing the video and compounded the error by editing the clip to take the boy’s comments out of context.

Rep. Bobby RushRush “is very, very disturbed about it,” said Renee Ferguson, his communications director and a former NBC Chicago television investigative journalist. “I know he feels it’s not enough to say it was just a mistake because there’s no such thing as just a mistake when you impact the life of a young child.”

Ferguson said Rush has directed her to contact the station and determine what happened and why. Depending on what she learns, she said, Rush may take action that could include calling for a congressional hearing.

Rush sits on the House Energy Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. The panel funds the Federal Communications Commission, which issues broadcast licenses.

WBBM is owned and operated (O&O) by CBS. According to a 2010 census report by this reporter under the auspices of the National Association of Black Journalists, the station has no people of color on its news management staff.

NABJ advocates for fair coverage of communities of color by encouraging stations to reflect the diversity of their metropolitan areas. Diversitydata.org shows that people of color constitute approximately 45 percent of the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet metropolitan area.

“I have to believe, had there been somebody of color in management, that video would not have aired,” said Kathy Y. Times, former NABJ president.

WBBM has been widely criticized.

Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, told the Maynard Institute, “Perpetuating a stereotype on something any little kid – including my own 6-year-old – would have said? And then to find out he said he wanted to be a police officer, and that was cut? It’s not just out of context; it’s downright misleading.”

After viewing the clip, Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said, “As somebody who’s a former journalist, like many past presidents of the NAACP, it’s important to tell the whole truth because when you tell half a truth, you’re in effect lying.”

The comments by Limor and Jealous were first published July 27.

Ed SilvermanEd Silverman, 87, was a network TV news correspondent, commentator and analyst, and was assistant director of news operations for ABC TV and director of news and public affairs for WABC-TV in New York. He wrote one of the most scathing critiques: 

“Having been a news director of a network flagship station in the nation’s #1 market, I can assure you that if it had happened in my shop, I would be able to identify the guilty party or parties in hours, not days. And the punishment would be certain and swift.”

Richie said WBBM addressed the issue with the people responsible for writing and editing the story but would not reveal what, if any, action had been taken.

Silverman said he has a long pedigree when it comes to diversity matters. He said he was on the original screening committee that hired Mal Goode in 1962 to cover the United Nations as the first black news correspondent for the ABC television network.  

“When we [WABC] started ‘Like It Is’ with Gil Noble in 1968, the show was initially written by white writers,” he said. “We fixed that and hired black writers, and the show was much more sensitive and well-rounded and obtained overall balance.”

What happened at WBBM “was so egregious that I couldn’t believe it was a crown jewel, a CBS O&O,” Silverman said. “All of my old colleagues are stunned by it. It defies imagination.”

Told that there is no diversity in WBBM’s news management, Silverman and Ferguson expressed surprise.

“Where are we in this country where that could be the case at a station that is licensed by the FCC to operate in the public interest?” Ferguson asked.

“It’s the year 2011, and there are no people of color, no black people as news managers there? It was wrong in the ’60s, we tried to change it in the ’70s, and now we look at ourselves and here we are again dealing with the same issue. It’s very disheartening.”

Silverman said he is also concerned that little progress has been made to diversify news management.

“That means baseball is more diversified than broadcasting,” he said.

News websites throughout the United States and beyond have picked up the video. As of this writing, more than 228,000 views have been logged. Many commenters are asking why WBBM has not apologized.

While the station has received credit for admitting its mistakes, there has been no correction, and the word ‘apology’ has not appeared in any official statements.

Kathy Times“When you do something wrong, you acknowledge it,” Times said. “And the fact that the station did not go back and correct it to say, ‘That wasn’t the case. The young man really wants to be a police officer.’ That told me there was no regard, absolutely no thought given as to the connotation of the way it made this young man appear. That’s just wrong. I think the station owes the community, especially the child’s family, an apology.”

Times’ sentiments are echoed by the organization she led until her term expired Aug. 7 at the NABJ convention in Philadelphia. NABJ condemned WBBM for taking the boy’s comments out of context and called for an on-air correction and apology to him and his family.

Ferguson says WBBM’s actions – or inactions – must be addressed.

“This station is licensed to broadcast in the public interest,” she said, “and I know that no FCC license challenges have been . . . no licenses have been taken away in a long time. But the whole idea that you’re licensed in the public interest to really serve the public interest, how can you do that if you don’t have diversity in your news management?”

Bob Butler is a reporter at KCBS radio in San Francisco, a columnist for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and, as NABJ vice president/broadcast, is a member of the NABJ Board of Directors. 



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