By Vernon A. Williams
I purposely waited until the din had somewhat settled before weighing in on the controversial Gayle King interview with WNBA superstar Lisa Leslie.
Undoubtedly, many totally overreacted, spewing venom and violent threats in the heat of the moment. That was wrong and unnecessary. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.
But make no mistake, people were within their rights to question the judgment of pursuing such a distasteful subject matter when wounds of a horrific tragedy were so fresh. So was scrutiny of the aggressive tone of Ms. King when questions appeared not to elicit the preferred response.
Some thought the relentless tone of a single adverse line of questioning clearly being resisted by Leslie, amounted to badgering.
Gayle King had a right to ignore convention. No one has the power to dictate what a journalist should or should not ask in the context of their story. But in retrospect, she even realizes that the clip CBS chose to highlight was professionally unflattering.
A few things that should be added to this waning dialogue include the fact that journalists have options. From the media neophyte to the most seasoned veterans, reporters have the right to exercise prerogatives: that some boundaries exist in the noble pursuit of the facts.
Even the most hard-core journalist recognizes the need for sensitivity in going about their duties. Competent reporting is never absent standards and conscience.
I am reminded of a personal experience as a young journalist at the Gary Post Tribune newspaper. The story pitted me in a vicious battle of wills with my direct report.
Specifically, I was assigned to write a feature story on a late 30s fashion show director and organizer who had a marijuana and gun possession charge as a teen. My city editor wanted that small, insignificant fact in the story.
The goal of the organizer was to showcase his fashions and raise money for Gary students interested in pursuing industry related careers. This man’s single brush with the law two decades earlier was totally irrelevant and could only do harm.
I debated with the city editor over two days. He told me that he had the authority to include the criminal charges with or without my cooperation.
I acknowledged that fact but insisted that if he chose to pursue that route against my will, force feeding the negativity, then I demanded my by-line (name) be removed from the story. The city editor eventually acquiesced and ran the story as it was written without the negative slant.
The style show was packed and several participants earned scholarships.
The point of the story is that all journalists have discretion as they fulfill responsibilities of news coverage. Sensationalism often comes at a steep price and rarely accomplishes any good.
The controversial TV interview and subsequent severe backlash is certain to convince even a veteran like Gayle King to be more judicious and empathetic in considerations that go into her future reporting.
It is a lesson that can benefit all media professionals.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].