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Irresponsible Reporting

Date sent: Tue, 02 Oct 2001 18:24:23 -0400
Subject: Irresponsible reporting
From: Nicolas Martin <nicolas@martinworld.com>
To: <newsroom@wate.com>

News Director
WATE TV
Knoxville, TN

Dear news editor:

I could scarcely believe my ears listening to your 5pm news today. Within a story about self-defense your anchors tell listeners that gun control advocates caution people that there are specific statistical risks to gun ownership.

Since when is it the business of new departments to insert the positions of political advocacy groups into “news” stories? If these were merely uncontroversial facts obtained from government and independent agencies, you would have no need to report them as the views of a special interest group. You would not, for instance, say, “before you purchase a car be aware that anti-automobile groups caution that 35,000 people die every year in car accidents,” would you? Is the number of people who are killed and by cars not a public record that can easily be checked? Are your reporters and too lazy to do the work required, or do you not expect them to do real reporting?

I called your department after the story aired and spoke to a man to whom I put my objections. He said that he was sure the producer had checked the references provided by the gun control advocates, but he then backtracked, noting that he had no evidence that such fact-checking was done and was making an assumption. Were groups or experts opposed to gun control contacted so that your station would learn if the statistics were uncontroversial, agreed to by both sides? I don’t think the NRA and the many experts on the subject are difficult to locate. But perhaps you only include the views of advocacy groups with which you agree into your stories.

I’m fairly new to Knoxville, so I wonder if it is a regular feature of your news to insert the views of special interests into your stories. In stories about food do you say, “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals warns that the eating of animal flesh leads to high cholesterol and increased cancer risks.” In stories about birth control usage do you tell listeners, “Please be aware that the Pope says that birth control leads to promiscuity and resulting increases in AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.” In medical stories do you note that “Patient’s right advocates note that tens of thousands of Americans are killed every year by physicians, nurses, and medical procedures”? I should think that virtually every story could include some statistics, real or bogus, from some advocacy group. And if you begin to provide a warning with every news story, there are far more risky things than gun ownership. I’ve mentioned three: driving a car, having a medical procedure, and engaging in promiscuous sex.

If you have some incontrovertible facts why don’t you report them? Why do we need your station to be the mouthpiece for any advocacy group? I’m sure that any decent reporter could lay hands on official gunshot statistics in a few hours. I’m sure that even those statistics might have critics, just as the numbers about deaths from medical error do. I deal with health statistics all the time and I know just how uncertain they can be.

Let me put it plainly. It is wholly irresponsible for a news department to be serving as the mouthpiece for political groups, including groups with which I agree. Good reporting isn’t just repeating the assertions of vested interests, and it isn’t accepting those interests at face value. I have no idea why such a silly warning was inserted into this story, but since it was it should not have been as the assertion of a special interest, or the views of competing interests should have been sought.

Otherwise we viewers might begin to think that the role of your news staff is to deliver propaganda rather than news, and you wouldn’t want us to get that idea, would you?

Would you be kind enough to supply me with the sources that your producer fact checked to confirm the claims of the gun control advocates that you aired?

Nicolas Martin
Exec Dir
Consumer Health Education Council


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