TV Station Takes Four-Year-Old Child’s Quote Out of Context

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Bob Butler
August 2, 2011

A Chicago television station is under fire for editing the video of an African-American youth to make it appear that the 4-year-old was advocating gun violence when he clearly stated during the interview that he wanted a gun because his ambition is to be a police officer.   

The CBS station, WBBM, is being blasted by civil rights leaders and news media professionals for taking the youth’s statements out of context, violating the basics of journalism ethics.

A freelance photographer interviewed the youngster about whether he was frightened by a July 21 shooting of two teenagers in Chicago’s Park Manor neighborhood.  The station aired the portion of the interview in which the boy responded by saying he was not afraid and wanted his own gun.

However, it failed to air the portion of the child’s quote in which he said he wanted a gun because he planned to be a police officer.

“This was wrong so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start,” said Hagit Limor, investigative reporter at WCPO-TV in Cincinnati and the President of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).

The following is a transcript of what the station aired June 30th.

Boy: “I’m not scared of nothing.”

Reporter: “When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Reporter: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Anchor Steve Bartelstein ended the story saying, “that was scary indeed.” Co-anchor Susan Carlson exclaimed, “hearing that little boy there, wow!”

After the story ran July 21, the Maynard Institute received another video that contained the rest of the boy’s interview. The sender said he was blurring the video and reduced its quality to try and protect the youth. Here is that transcript.

Reporter: “Boy, you ain’t scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Reporter: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Reporter” “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I'm going to be the police!” 

Reporter: “Okay then you can have one."

Shawnelle Richie, director of communications for CBS 2, initially admitted the video of the child should not have aired.

“We acknowledge that a mistake was made, both in the reporting and editing of the story,” said Richie. 

But she did not mention that the boy’s comments were taken out of context.

Previously Richie reported the video only aired once and was taken off the air immediately. Now she acknowledges that was incorrect.

“The story was broadcast twice within the same morning news block: once during the 4:30 a.m. half hour and again during the 6:30 a.m. half hour,” she said.

“As soon as our news management identified the problem that morning, they took immediate steps to ensure that the video would not air in subsequent newscasts and addressed the issue with our news staff.”

But journalists interviewed about the incident said the broadcast raised troubling issues.

“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,” Limor said.

One of the questions raised by this incident is whether the person who wrote the story intentionally left out the end of the boy’s quote or never looked at the entire interview.

Catherine BrownEither way it’s a problem, according to Catherine Brown, news producer and national vice president for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in Philadelphia.

“One of the first things we learn is to look at your video to see what you have to work with,” she said.

This story is part of the Maynard Institute’s ‘Health and the Media’ series that focuses on changing the way the media reports on boys and men of color. The goal is to ensure that all segments of this country are fairly and accurately portrayed.

 “Airing a video of the boy saying he wanted a gun that edits out the context simply  reinforces stereotypes that African American males are violent, even preschoolers,” said Dori J. Maynard, President of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

Both videos were played for delegates at the NAACP Convention in Los Angeles.

NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said the case was “disturbing.”

“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,” he said.

Al TompkinsAl Tompkins, Senior Faculty for Broadcasting and Online at the Poynter Institute, who wrote an article on the ethics of interviewing juveniles for the Radio Television Digital News Association, agreed the issue brought up a number of questions.

“If the child did witness a shooting, could the child be a witness? Could identifying the child put him in harm's way? Would the station have interviewed the child or used the video if the child had been a rich white kid? “ he asked.

“The station should answer questions about this video and be responsible for it,” he said. “The SPJ Code of Ethics includes "Be Accountable-Be Accessible" as one of the four main tenets of journalistic ethics,” he added.

NAACP President Jealous concurred, calling on station management to speak up and not leave the answers to the director of communications.

“We who care about how are people are portrayed in the media need to make sure that the general manager of the station understands that it’s just not acceptable to misrepresent what people are saying, especially someone so young,” he said.

Attempts to contact the news director and the general manger were not answered.

More than half a dozen employees at the station were also contacted, but each either refused to comment on the story, with some saying they feared reprisals, or did not respond to repeated requests. Several said they were not authorized to speak about the incident and referred inquiries to management.

Charna KinardLoyola University NAACP chapter president Charna Kinard, 22, a Chicago native, said she was not surprised that CBS 2 aired a video that made a 4-year old boy look like a criminal.

“That is not my preferred news station because it’s very biased. The only thing worse than that channel I would say is Fox”, she said. “All they show is a lot of crime. They don’t show any type of improvement in the community. They really perpetrate the whole ‘Chicago is a very dangerous, segregated city.’”

In the end, said SPJ President Limor, the broadcast breached the foundation of journalistic integrity.

“This decision reveals a lack of understanding of the very basic tenets of journalism,” she said. “I’m shocked anyone working in the #3 market could continue to be employed given such unprofessional decision-making. My journalism professors at Northwestern would have flunked this person freshman year.”



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