Media went nuts last week over a gossipy story released as an “exclusive” to QMI – Sun Media – but a few of us wouldn’t touch it and I’ll tell you why.
The story had everything that sensationalistic news sources love: a serial killer, sex, lust and anguish. An unnamed London woman plans, according to friends and her worried family, to marry Paul Bernardo. Or perhaps she’s rethinking it. We really don’t know. But at one point, some woman who is never identified, nor are her family members or her apparent friends, believed she and the notorious school-girl killer would get married. Maybe.
I read the story through a couple of times. I’m familiar with the journalist who wrote it and know him to be credible, however the story didn’t measure up to many criteria I use before deciding whether something is on-air worthy. The woman was never named. She was described, in a roundabout way, as rather sad and pathetic. This could simply be a case of a woman without all of her marbles, making a horrible claim. The story contradicted itself partway through. Although the woman was at first said to be kookoo for the killer, later on she was said to be reconsidering the marriage. Also, inmates, even ones as horrible as Bernardo, are allowed to communicate and even marry people on the outside. It happens all the time. This was a story with no backbone meant only to provoke emotion. And as I predicted when I read it, most newscasters were on it like white on rice.
I don’t think I know everything so I bounced my perspective off three other newscasters whom I respect: one young, one a veteran like me and one in the biz even longer. The young guy said, “It’s gossip. Bullshit. I’m not touching it.” The veteran said, “What am I? TMZ? No way, not going there.” The super-veteran said, “Yeah we talked about it too and it didn’t pass the sniff test to us either.”
So this is where the philosophies part company. In order to use the story with any dignity, one would have to credit QMI. One would also have to feel comfortable with just saying “a London woman”, knowing that there is no possible way to verify her identity or whether the story is even true. The only reason to use the story is for moral outrage. I ask you, is that enough?
After our show, I sort of expected someone in my organization to come to me and say, why weren’t you doing the story that everyone else had this morning? No one did. My lead story was damning wait-times data that showed our city’s teaching hospital, the one where my life was saved, has the absolute worst ER wait times in the province. I felt that was useful. Everybody uses health care. Most people don’t want to hear about Bernardo ever again.
I’m really not trying to stand on moral high ground as much as to say, these are the decisions we have to make. Is it my job to simply provoke outrage and make listeners stamp their feet, regardless of the journalistic ethics I’d have to toss aside? Should I jump off that cliff just because the other lemmings are all doing so? Or should I use my judgment and apply it to everything equally? I’m going with door number three, until I’m told otherwise.