The Minnesota News Council’s indictment of WCCO TV for a series on safety at Northwest Airlines raises important questions about the business influence on news and the nature of truth in a visual culture.
The nation’s most successful news council has never attracted more attention than it did Oct. 18, when it watched Northwest Airlines and WCCO face off in an adversarial proceeding offered as an alternative to lawsuits over news stories. The council then voted 19-2 to condemn WCCO for painting “a distorted, untruthful picture of Northwest Airlines.”
Clearly, reporter-anchor Don Shelby was stunned at the rebuke he received after he and former WCCO General Manager John Culliton defended their report on safety problems raised by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Shelby said he’d accept the criticism that the piece was distorted or not balanced, but the word “untruthful” hurt. “In 19 years I’ve never lied on television,” he said.
The dispute, however, was less about lying than about the nature of truth.
Judging from the time spent in discussion, both the news council and Northwest Airlines seemed most concerned about the context in which facts were placed. Although Shelby frequently said on air that Northwest was the safest airline, news council members said the stories gave the opposite impression.
News often suffers from lack of context, but Northwest’s real problem was with the spin on the report. In a footnote to its complaint, Northwest indicated its preferred context: “Of course, those viewers who were alarmed by what they saw and stopped flying Northwest might have benefited from knowing that in all likelihood they were shifting their patronage to airlines that are statistically more accident-prone than Northwest. Those viewers who stopped flying altogether might have similarly benefited from knowing the rate of incidents per 100,000 departures for Northwest and all other airlines so that they could judge the safety of air travel versus other means of transportation.”
Despite a well-argued brief raising important issues, Northwest opened the hearing on the attack. Northwest Vice President Christopher Clouser said WCCO produced its story to enhance personal reputations, boost ratings in a sweeps week and improve profits for WCCO and its owners: CBS and Westinghouse. (Northwest’s stockholders, customers and competitors should be interested in learning of the airline’s new religion on profits, cheap competitive tricks and personality struggles in the corporate workplace.)
Like Clouser, business people often err when they project the values of their own corporate cultures on newsrooms. But reporters are just as naive when they claim, as Shelby suggested, that ratings, advertising and readership surveys have no effect on their work.
Reputable media companies do shield newsrooms from business pressures, and they and the news council should not let powerful interests browbeat them into putting a favorable corporate spin on their stories.
Facts Versus Visual Truth:
Former television reporter Maureen Reeder said WCCO’s story represented the best and the worst of television journalism at the same time. It contained all the elements of a good story accompanied by strong graphics.
In this sense, the council’s decision was not based on facts; it was based on an overall impression given by the stories. Here is the issue that gets to the heart of television journalism: While designed to support the story, the visuals actually undermined its credibility.
WCCO producers jazzed the piece up by graphically pulling out quotes and individual words for emphasis. The camera enlarged individual words, panned rapidly to other individual words, often within the same sentences. These techniques aggravate the problem of taking quotes out of context.
WCCO unnecessarily emphasized hidden tapes and accompanying visuals, anonymous sources with cloaked identities and nighttime shots of flashing lights outside airplane hangars and at the scene of a murder. Shelby’s report mentioned the murder of a baggage handler, apparently to suggest that her charges of sexual harassment related to the work climate for maintenance workers. The voice-over used words like “harassment” and “intimidation” while showing workers through a chain-link fence. Reporters gave no explanation of what the men were doing inside the fence.
Night shots of a hangar were a technical issue for photographers but an ethical one for the critics. To see inside where the mechanics work, Culliton said, photographers shot at night. A daylight shot would be so bright on the outside that the inside of the hangar would look black. The critics said the night pictures with flashing airplane lights gave the impression of a clandestine operation.
Each report repeatedly showed pictures of a Boeing 747 whose engine had fallen off upon landing at a Japanese airport. Footage also showed firefighters spraying the plane with a fire retardant. WCCO reported that luck was all that prevented a serious loss of life. Northwest indicated that planes can land safely if an engine falls off, but, as WCCO argued, planes can crash if the engine falls at the wrong time.
Without the disabled plane, the visuals for WCCO’s story would have been boring. Piles of government documents and pictures of airplanes taking off and landing are not the kind of graphics that keep viewers from clicking the remote-control button.
A few years ago, media critics cried for stories like the Northwest Airlines piece; reports that required in-depth investigation and explored important issues that did not lend themselves to dramatic visual presentation. Now critics worry about techniques that make dull stories visually exciting.
Should journalists ask whether the repeated night shots of flashing lights at the airport followed by red, flashing lights at a murder scene make an unstated visual suggestion? Should they question the overuse of graphics to keep viewers tuned in? Does the repeated showing of the same scene create unnecessary alarm?
The news council’s decision makes visual suggestions as important as facts. Reporters should subject the visual elements of their stories to the same ethical standards of accuracy, independence and minimal harm as the words they write.
Bill Huntzicker is a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also the editorial adviser to The Minnesota Daily.