Aggressive or offensive?

The case of KDFW-TV reporter Rebecca Aguilar should raise questions in TV newsrooms everywhere. Aguilar was suspended after a parking-lot interview she did with a 70-year-old man who had killed two people trying to break into his home-based business in separate incidents.

After viewers complained vociferously, Aguilar was suspended. But the station’s actions are drawing criticism, too.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which honored Aguilar with its 2007 Broadcast Journalist of the Year Award, called her conduct aggressive but professional and ripped the station for disciplining her:

The station’s handling of this matter sends the wrong message to journalists throughout the country that news managers will bow to the pressures of segments of the public with special interests instead of standing up for the principles of journalism. Worse yet, it signals that journalists stand alone and without defense by the news media companies they work for when their lives are threatened for doing a job so essential to our society and democracy.

Aguilar’s punishment also seems out of line to some news managers, according to a report on Poynter.org. “It just seemed to be a good piece to me,” said Tom Bier, station manager at WISC-TV in Madison, Wisc. “Her tone wasn’t accusatory, and she was polite.” But general manager Jim Ogle of WIBW-TV in Topeka, Kan., called the interview “appalling,” saying the man was a private citizen who was turned into “the equivalent of a criminal when no such finding has been made by the police.”

Aguilar defended her actions to Dallas TV critic Ed Bark.

“I am known for asking questions that I think bring back deeper answers,” Aguilar says during our interview. “But I treated this man with utmost respect. In fact, some of the questions I asked him on-camera I had asked him already in our conversations on the phone. That’s why you don’t see him alarmed . . . I knew that he felt comfortable with me, and I felt comfortable with him. I know from experience when people don’t want me around.”

Here are some questions newsrooms might want to consider in the aftermath of this case.

  • How can we avoid the perception that we have ambushed an ordinary citizen for an interview?
  • Does the way reporters phrase their questions convey an opinion or judgment that can lead viewers to believe the station is unfair?
  • What conversations should we have in the newsroom about the tone and content of interviews before deciding to air them?
  • Can we justify our actions to the public and do we explain how and why we do what we do?

Bottom line: if you’re not talking about this, you should be.

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