I've been moved by the memorable coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings. This is an incredibly tragic story, and I'm grateful to all the journalists who've worked so hard in those heart-wrenching circumstances to keep us informed. Having said that, I'm also alarmed that some of those same journalists have chosen to interject their opinions into their coverage.
I understand how hard it can be to set aside your emotions. As a news reporter, I covered my share of stories that personally left me feeling intense sorrow and, at times, even sheer anger. But there is a profound difference between feeling it and sharing it.
Above all else, and despite the most incomprehensible situations, journalists have a responsibility to the public. They are trained to be unbiased and are expected to be fair, no matter what. But for whatever reason, some have used this story to convey their personal opinions.
One of the most notable examples is CNN anchor Don Lemon, who made a passionate appeal for tougher gun control while reporting from Newtown, CT. For more than a minute, Lemon called into question gun laws in place in this country, and proclaimed that “the first thing that we need to do – and according to everyone that is here, even gun enthusiasts, is talk about what we're doing with assault rifles. Why do we have guns that should only be available in war zones?”
It's a valid question and, in fact, many Americans likely agree with Lemon's statements. But whether you agree or not, consider this - Lemon is a journalist. He is not a commentator.
This was a newscast, not an op-ed segment. There is a time and place for people on all sides of the issue to express their opinions, but they should not come from a journalist in the midst of covering a developing story.
Again, I understand that reporters and anchors are not robots. They are human beings with real feelings, and it would be impossible to cover a tragedy like Sandy Hook without some sense of grief or outrage. But that's where professionalism is required most.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states that journalists should “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting” and insists that “analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
So how are these “breaking opinions” getting into our newscasts? What's driving journalists to think they're commentators? I believe social media is a major factor in this philosophical shift.
In the hyper-competitive world of news, journalists are always looking for ways to more fully connect with consumers. As a result, most are encouraged, and often required, by their employers to Facebook, tweet, and blog, and many of these social media interactions include personal information and opinions. Some journalists share photos of their pets; others look to find favor by rooting on local sports teams. Many even use social media to promote upcoming stories to their followers. None of that is wrong, necessarily, but we need to be careful.
Technology allows us to communicate constantly, and to a wider variety of audiences than ever before. But journalists should always be mindful of exactly which voice they are speaking with, and respect those who are listening.
Lisa Arledge Powell is the president of MediaSource, a multimedia production and media relations company that works with hospitals, healthcare organizations, and other brands.