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Big J Journalism
Fri November 15, 2013
Why this Melanie Moon thing with Ryan Ferguson actually matters
Many media and journalism-school types have been following the dustup over KPLR anchor/reporter Melanie Moon's behavior while covering the Ryan Ferguson press conference earlier this week right after his release from prison. Joy Mayer at the Columbia Missourian cataloged the exchange with Moon in this Storify, so you'll need to read that first for this piece to make much sense. As Mayer has pointed out, many news outlets and twitterers are focusing on the ethical conversation around Moon hugging Ryan Ferguson and his father Bill, and taking a photograph with Ryan at the press conference. This is an interesting conversation, and the area of journalism ethics is blurry sometimes. But the more important conversation to have here really is the area that is not blurry: one about good, responsible journalism.
Just to get this out of the way briefly here, I'm going to side with the curmudgeons on the hug, and say for a variety of reasons that is unprofessional. I'm not calling for a ban on journalist hugs, but I will summarize by saying I think intention is important. Hugs for consolation can make sense in some circumstances, for celebration, not so much. I would contend that if you're doing your job right as a journalist you will already have boundaries that make interactions like this something you'll never feel comfortable with. I also will emphasize the importance of avoiding the appearance of conflict of interest, and the Society of Professional journalists would back me up on that one.
But I've really been interested in this conversation not because of the hug thing, but because of what Mayer found out while talking with Moon about this exchange: Moon's significant misunderstanding of the Appeals Court ruling in this case. To me, it was unacceptable for a journalist who considers this their "all time favorite story" to have such basic facts about it wrong. A journalist's most basic job is to relay along factual information to their audience, and sometimes this requires a lot of actual work.
Some will suggest otherwise, but the point about whether Ferguson is now innocent is an important one. His sentence was vacated, and thus he had the same status as a pre-trial detainee that he had in 2005 before his trial started. Yes, that does mean he is innocent until proven guilty. But to simply report that he is innocent is oversimplifying. There is such a thing as an exoneration, and that is not what happened here; he was not declared innocent. Because of a Brady Violation his original court case was thrown out, and the impact of that alone can easily fill an hour-long talk show.
But I want to be fair to Moon here: she is not the only journalist that had the story wrong. Most news outlets had at least some details wrong, because when it comes down to it - most journalists are not lawyers. Many news outlets employ crime and courts reporters who are able to read legal documents in a competent way for day-to-day stories. But this was not a day-to-day story, it was a big one. So general assignment reporters like Moon - and myself - are taken off their routines and are all of a sudden thrown in to a story like this that we don't truly understand. I was in the same situation covering this story in the last week. What's important is that we as journalists acknowledge what we're not qualified to understand, and find someone to explain it to us. A source/interpreter.
This is what we did at KBIA in our coverage of this story. I will admit - my immediate coverage of this story on social media had some errors in it. We read the court document like journalists everywhere else did, without a true understanding of the legal mechanisms surrounding it. It was only after we talked to lawyers hours after the decision was released that we found out that nearly everyone was misreporting some key details about the ruling. In a podcast, we tried to dispel some of the misinformation. One example: Ferguson was not "set to be released in 15 days" if the state didn't retry him. It was actually 30 days. That "fact" was reported by nearly every outlet covering this story (the Columbia Missourian, however, had it right). Some really great news outlets even found good sources with legal insight, but it turned out they were asking the wrong people.
It sounded nice for journalists everywhere to say Ferguson was slated to be home by Thanksgiving, but it just wasn't factually accurate. Some will say, 'well he's out now, so who cares?' The point is that because of inaccurate reporting, many people have the wrong ideas about why Ferguson was released. The real reasons are important for the future of the case, and for the public's understanding of it.
At KBIA, we talked to lawyers we knew about the story and the ruling, and then got both the Attorney General's office and the clerk at the Western District Court of Appeals to confirm the legal background of our reporting. I'm not saying this to pat ourselves on the back, in fact, it's to admit the opposite. We weren't smart enough to know this stuff on our own, and that was OK - as long as we got the facts from someone who did. Instead of deleting tweets, we also owned up to our mistakes.
Some have called this exercise since Wednesday an "attack" on Melanie Moon. I think that's an oversimplification. To be frank, I doubt that Joy Mayer or many of the others here are all that concerned about whether this journalist decides to re-think their approach to stories. It seems pretty clear that she will not. She has plainly said she thinks "it's impossible to be objective" on a story like this (seems like something for her and her assignment editor to sort out). What people like Mayer and I are concerned about is journalism. Mayer and I each work in newsrooms with some of the brightest budding journalists in the country, and this is a wonderful teaching moment. Many of them were bumping shoulders with some of the top reporters in the country as they covered this story, and they also bumped shoulders with some that fell flat on their face. Those students can learn from all of these people. Not to be overdramatic here, but this is about Walter Williams' journalism - and trying to help it keep its place in this ever-changing media landscape.