When 13-year-old kidnapping victim Jerrod Love arrived at the Nashville Airport on a late Friday night two weeks ago, Metro police did their best to shield him from the waiting television cameras.
It didn’t work. The next day, both Channel 4 and Channel 5 broadcast tape of Love looking scared and trying to lower his face as he left the plane and got into a waiting police car.
Only Channel 2 had the sense to realize that this was one story the public didn’t need to see. ”We talked about it and decided that this kid had already been put through enough,“ Channel 2 news director Mathew Zelkind said. ”He didn’t need any more.“
”When I saw the look on his face when he saw the cameras, I knew we’d made the right decision,“ added assistant news director Tracey Gallien.
Love and child rape suspect Timothy David Young had been missing since January 11. Police said last week they do not yet know if Love had been sexually abused.
Former Channel 4 news director Al Tompkins, who now teaches broadcasting at the Poynter Institute, stopped short of criticizing his old station, but said he would not have sent a camera to the airport.
”In this case, you can’t justify the harm done to this child based on the public’s need to know,“ he said. ”I applaud Channel 2 for making the right decision.“
Tompkins’ successor, J.T. Thompson, said his staff also discussed whether to send a camera, but says he has no second thoughts about his decision. ”It’s still unclear whether [Love] was a rape victim,“ he said, ”and his picture had been all over the national media for three weeks.“
Love’s picture, in fact, helped police find the boy and his kidnapper after the case was featured on America’s Most Wanted.
It’s one thing to film a happy, relieved family, or an adult defendant being taken into custody. But Jarrod Love had no one waiting for him except police, state welfare workers...and television cameras. His private pain deserved more respect.
Just before New Year’s, The Tennessean published a front-page story by reporter Lynette Chua describing a ceremony to honor former President Andrew Johnson. The story, datelined ”Greeneville, Tenn.,“ described a ”2-inch by 2-inch plate“ in the Johnson museum.
The next day, the paper ran a brief correction. The plate was actually 2-feet square. Chua, an intern, didn’t necessarily suffer from bad vision. The fact is, she never went to Greeneville in the first place, according to a park ranger at the museum.
Last September, Tennessean reporter Jennifer Peebles wrote two by-lined stories on the space shuttle Atlantis. Although both stories carried a ”Fort Campbell, Kentucky“ dateline, Peebles ”never got closer to Fort Campbell than her telephone,“ a source at the newspaper said. Last month, veteran reporter Leon Alligood used datelines from both Murfreesboro and Iron City on the same day. Twenty-four hours later, he was supposedly reporting from Pikeville, near Chattanooga. Alligood did make it to Murfreesboro, but the Pikeville and Iron City stories were done over the phone, according to the people Alligood interviewed.
A dateline tells the reader where the story came from. A byline tells who wrote it. Put the two together, and it means, according to a longstanding journalism convention, that the reporter was present in the datelined community to get the information he or she is writing about.
That’s how the reader knows, for example, that all those sports reporters covering the Super Bowl were actually in Miami and not just watching the game on television.
For the last year or so, however, The Tennessean has quietly approved the use of ”jumping“ datelines: telling reporters and editors to add datelines to bylined stories whether or not the reporter ever left the newsroom.
”It’s deception, pure and simple,“ said Steve Geimann, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. The paper ”is intentionally misleading its readers by implying that the reporter was there.“
Although many papers sometimes fudgesay, by using a dateline if the reporter is headed toward, or has just returned from, the datelined communityGeimman said this is the first time he’s heard of a paper intentionally misusing datelines as a matter of newsroom policy. ”It’s just unacceptable,“ he said.
Other newspaper editors agreed. ”We wouldn’t do it,“ said managing editors at both the Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
The Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of style used by most papers, says that bylines and datelines should be used ”only if the reporter was in the datelined commmunity to gather the information reported.“ USA Today follows the same policy, according to the paper’s style manual.
Sources at The Tennessean say that managing editor Dave Green formally approved the use of jumping datelines in 1997 over the continuing objections of several staffers. Green’s rationale, one source said, is simply that the dateline helps tell the reader where the story is from.
Green referred questions about the dateline issue to Tennessean editor Frank Sutherland, who would not discuss it.