Thursday, December 08, 2005

A black eye for the "bad neighbor"

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:58 PM |  

On his trip to the state fair last year, blogger David Downing was approached by WCCO TV reporter Terri Gruca. She said she was doing a story about slow fair attendance. Dave reported at the time that he and his family were selected to appear on camera, even though in his off-camera interview he told her his family’s reasons for selecting bargain day to come to the fair didn’t really fit her story, but she insisted.
We repeated what we had said off-camera. Gruca also asked if we thought prices were going up, and we said yes, they were, and rising prices for admission and at the concessions might keep some people away. She asked if we noticed the final day bargains. My wife said no, except for the reduced rates on carnival rides. Gruca asked if we thought higher gas prices were keeping people away. I replied no, because it's little difference for people in the metro area, and for people outstate, the Fair is an event that's been on their calendars all year, and they are coming regardless. (Remember, I grew up on the farm; I was once one of those people.)

We sure didn't fit the template of the story Gruca said she was working on. I wondered, would we not appear in the final story, because we didn't fit what she wanted? Or would she reshape the story she initially thought she had, to reflect what we had told her?
Well, Gruca put the Downings in her story, editing it so their comments fit her premise of gloom and doom. Dave contacted WCCO, but got no satisfaction regarding the misrepresentation so he took his case to the Minnesota News Council. Today they handed down their opinion.

December 8, 2005


News Council finds WCCO-TV misrepresented
St. Paul family in story on State Fair attendance

The Minnesota News Council voted 11-1 today to uphold a complaint against WCCO-TV by a St. Paul family who said the station misrepresented them as unable to afford to attend the Minnesota State Fair except on a Bargain Day.

David Downing, a graphic designer and writer, said he and his wife told the WCCO reporter before they were videotaped that they were attending the fair only one day last summer because that was all the time they had and not because they could not afford to go more than once. He said the reporter ignored his remarks and then on camera asked leading questions about finances and edited the answers to support the premise that money-strapped fairgoers had no option besides a Bargain Day.

The News Council also voted, 10-2, to state its view that the television station’s response to the family’s complaint was inadequate and unprofessional. The only responses Downing received, he said, were one e-mail from the reporter saying, “I’m sorry you feel I misrepresented you and your family,” and another from the news director saying, “I appreciate you writing WCCO-TV. I have thoroughly reviewed your concern. I am confident that our story was accurate and did not misrepresent anything you or your wife said to us.”

Downing told the News Council that he was disappointed that the news director did not invite him to meet at the station to acknowledge his concerns and discuss the editing so that, if the discussion established that the story did misrepresent the family, the station would make itself accountable and take steps to avoid such a mistake in the future.

“It makes a person wonder how many other stories are inaccurate,” Downing said.

Council member Benno Groeneveld, a freelance journalist, said the WCCO story was not the result of reporting, but of the work of someone who goes into an assignment with a story already in mind and then finds victims to flesh it out.

Council member Nancy Conner, former reader advocate of the Pioneer Press, said: “This is the kind of thing that chips away at the credibility of the news media and the trust people have in them.”

WCCO-TV did not participate in the hearing. Participation is voluntary, and the News Council does not permit the fact that a news outlet chooses not to attend to affect the determination on the merits of the complaint and response.

Half the complaints heard since 1971 have been upheld and half denied. The News Council is an independent nonprofit agency whose mission is to promote fair, vigorous and trusted journalism.
Kudos to David.

Category: Journalism