Is reporting life and death?

The answer is yes, it can be.

The nurse victimized by the prank phone call to the hospital tending to the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy killed herself. Now the Australian radio hosts are taking heat for putting her over the edge. Certainly they were not “reporting” by any stretch of the imagination – but the point is that the sharp end of the media really doesn’t discriminate. It’s a club that can be swung for entertainment, for information, to improve our world, or to destroy it.Press Conference

Every April first, some knucklehead loses his or her radio job spoofing an unsuspecting audience. Shock jocks are routinely removed from the air when management has to offer an angry public an ass or two when things get out of hand. But even legitimate reporters bring pain and regret just based on the nature of the job.

The problem in many of these cases is that the people who are doing “it” (pick your flavor) for a living often fail to recognize the media’s power. They’ve never been on the receiving end of media scrutiny, whether deserved or not. They have never felt the unforgiving glare of the spotlight and had their lives torn apart by unwanted exposure or embarrassment. The shock jock is no rougher on his victim than the legitimate reporter is racing through a neighborhood sticking a mic into the victim’s family’s faces.

Sometimes, members of the media have the high ground. If a dirt bag feels a little heat, so be it. But it is rarely that simple. There is always collateral damage: the kids, family, co-workers and neighbors. People dislike the media so much because the media is a wrecking crew – especially when operating in a pack. If you’re the only one on a story, you can exercise a lot of touch and caring. When you’re part of the pack, it’s a scrum with no prisoners taken. I’ve done both hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Whether operating alone or in the pack, or as a shock jock (which I never did), the consequences of the work came into sharp relief for me very early in my career. I had a tip that a child molester, who was a local physician, was turning himself in at the local police station. We raced down there, got some video of him surrendering, and stuck a mic in his face to get a hand in the lens and some form of ”no comment.” It was a good tip, good TV, and it led the 11 that night.

The next morning when I rolled in, a lot of smiling faces told me about how the guy committed suicide that night. While some thought it was what it was, I felt all the blood rush out of my face. Was I at fault? Did my work result in somebody’s death? It took me a while to sort it all out – but if nothing else – it really provided me with some insight into the power of the media – it’s power to embarrass, expose, humiliate, enlighten, help and reveal. All of it, good and bad.

The police showed me the videotaped evidence of the molestor’s crimes: to this day, I know the world is a better place without him and I thank the cops for that. But it was a real eye-opener and it always shaped my approach to things. What if he had been wrongly accused? What if? What if? What if?

I think it made me better – and I sometimes wish that was a lesson every member of the media could get.