Chicago Stations Show How to Handle Controversial Video

By Kevin Eck Comment

This week, Chicago’s local TV stations had to decide how to show viewers Facebook video of four people torturing and taunting a mentally disabled man.

In 2015, the same stations were faced with the decision to air video of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer.

Poynter.org applauded Chicago’s locals for their cautious and thoughtful approach to respecting the line between informing an audience and sensationalizing a story.

“I told my newsroom ‘I don’t necessarily need to be first on this story,”‘ WMAQ news director Frank Whittaker told Poynter.

“Even though we were looking at this video, for a couple of hours we didn’t know for sure if it happened in our city or if it was even real,” said Jennifer Graves vp and news director for WLS. “We kept asking, ‘Was this a joke?'”

When police confirmed the video was authentic, they did not provide details about the suspects, the motive or the victim. And, until Thursday, nobody was charged and still the stations stuck to internal guidelines not to name or show suspects until they have been charged even while the raw video showing the victim and the abusers flowed on social media.

Before they knew more about the video, local journalists took steps to mitigate the damage it might cause. Even though the Facebook Live video clearly showed the suspected assailants, WMAQ did not show the suspects’ faces until police filed charges, Whittaker said. The same conversations were going on at stations throughout Chicago.

“We didn’t know if these people were juveniles,” Graves said. “We just didn’t know enough.”

We’ve distilled some Poynter’s tips for stations faced with the similar circumstances. Click here to read the entire piece.

-Consider the tone of the coverage. When you have repulsive video, there’s no need to pile on hype. Cut back on the adjectives and be factual when describing the clip.

-When journalists run the video days later, they should consider whether they have a justification every time. The reasons to use the video become less compelling as time passes; journalists can assume most people have seen or chosen not to see the images or hear the audio.

-Any time you use disturbing images, prepare your audience for what’s coming next. I am not a fan of generic warnings like, “Some of these images may be disturbing.” Tell viewers what they are going to see and why.

-If you consider this video to be news, as I do, explain to the public why you think so. I would argue that this kind of violence happens out of sight most often, which allows the rest of us to live comfortably not knowing the depths that humanity can sink to.

-The vulgar soundbites present special decision-making challenges. On TV, for reasons of FCC regulation, I would bleep or mask the F-word. The FCC does not generally penalize broadcasters who air profanity in the course of a legitimate news story, but the primary reason for airing vulgar language should be to provide clarity about whether somebody said something inflammatory.

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