How a St. Louis TV reporter got both ethics and facts wrong
I'm baffled today by some Twitter exchanges that started off being about journalism ethics and ended up being about the basic facts of a huge national news story that a reporter on the story had 100 percent wrong.
- One of the biggest news stories of the year unfolded this week in Columbia. Ryan Ferguson, who had been in prison for years for a murder he has always said he didn't commit, was released. His case has drawn international attention, and his supporters have been vocal and passionate.
Ryan Ferguson made his first public appearance at a news conference just after being released on Tuesday. Our staff at the Columbia Missourian covered the news conference (here's the complete coverage from the Missourian, available to digital subscribers), along with a packed house of local, regional and national journalists.
A couple of people I follow on Twitter — both of whom have some journalism experience and not-infrequent observations about the state of the news biz — were commenting on whether it was appropriate for reporters to be hugging Ryan Ferguson and his family after the news conference.
- Melanie Moon, a reporter for KPLR in St. Louis, was at the news conference. She joined the conversation, saying that she was driven at least in part by her sense of what's right and wrong. (It's not clear to me how she found the conversation a day after it happened, but it's clear that she was responding to Scott Charton's tweet.)
- In the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian and in my Participatory Journalism class, we talk a lot about ethics, including what it means to be a human being, not just a journalist. We talk about embracing our humanity in our journalism. We can't pretend we don't have feelings about what we cover, but we need to know when showing those feelings is appropriate. I have fairly broad views about what's allowable, and so I welcome the chance to participate in these conversations.
- But instead of responding to the question of journalists' celebrations, Moon continued to take the conversation in the direction of Ferguson's guilt or innocence. Her argument for having been hugging the family seemed to be rooted in her belief that he was innocent and that there was no reason not to join in the celebration of justice having been served.
Note: Moon's tweets have since been deleted.
- We picked it back up this morning.
- Moon tweeted back to Renee Hulshof, possibly in reference to Hulshof's husband, former prosecuting attorney Kenny Hulshof, who has been involved in cases that were overturned on judicial review. I include this exchange because I think it speaks to Moon's willingness to inject a snarky opinion into public conversation, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm misrepresenting her intent here.
- Moon also quoted to me from a court document. But she got it so, so wrong.
- The court's ruling on Tuesday didn't address Ferguson's innocence. He was released from prison on a Brady violation, over a matter of withheld evidence. The ruling was complicated — so complicated that the Columbia Missourian did a pretty long story explaining the ins and outs. It says, in part, this: "The judges concluded unanimously that the Brady material evidence withheld was so significant that it undermined the court's confidence in the conviction. In other words, it was not sure that if the jury had heard this information, that it would have believed Trump and convicted Ferguson."
Let me be clear: Ferguson was not found to be innocent. He was released because of a problem with the trial. In the national hype over the case, that fact has gotten overlooked or ignored by many. A couple of us said that back to her.
- And then, remarkably, she stood by it.
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- Ryan KellySome of these sermons about journalistic ethics would have been helpful back in '04-05 when the local media in Columbia, MO, particularly the Tribune, were...Some of these sermons about journalistic ethics would have been helpful back in '04-05 when the local media in Columbia, MO, particularly the Tribune, were cheerleading the state's efforts to railroad 2 innocent kids without bothering to look at the evidence. Nobody lectured them about sticking to the facts and not taking sides when they were acting as shills for law enforcement. Look at this story , ti basically declared him guilty and convicted him in the court of public opinion on the eve of his trial. But hey, at least the reporter who wrote this wasn't seen hugging Kevin Crane. http://archive.columbiatribune.com/2005/oct/20051016pers001.aspmore2013-11-16T19:01:37.479Z
- DromoCAs a young reporter (looking to work, willing to relocate...cough) coming into this field I feel quite strongly about the ethics of journalism. The state of the...As a young reporter (looking to work, willing to relocate...cough) coming into this field I feel quite strongly about the ethics of journalism. The state of the media worries me at the moment, and doesn't seem to be improving. Then I read this and it is so blatantly wrong that I'm no longer worried but. I'm not even sure what to say about this. It's not only flat out scary but disturbing someone who is seemingly educated, but more importantly, responsible for informing the public to be so in the wrong. I almost feel like there's a duty to act and this is grossly negligent, I mean it's simple reading comprehension. That's it. Like a 3rd grade skill. Maybe I should just start putting that in my resume, excellent reading comprehension skills (won't pull a moon) and unbiased (see above).more2013-11-16T09:51:26.098Z
- Micah WienerMs. Moon may be a very smart woman, but her line of logic and insistence upon denying the facts of the case make her seem like a total amateur covering a...Ms. Moon may be a very smart woman, but her line of logic and insistence upon denying the facts of the case make her seem like a total amateur covering a serious, hard news story. Perhaps she knows no better. If that's the case, her employers have serious questions to answer. The problem lies more with the assignment editor and the news department's management. Why send a reporter with such strong and outspoken biases to cover such a hard news story? If Moon wants to be a cheerleader for Ferguson, that is her right. She can tweet or blog about it. I think there's even a way for her to credibly interview him as part of a larger news piece. But what she has shown is that she is totally incapable of fairly (and correctly!) reporting the facts of this story. If Ms. Moon wants to be Barbara Walters and do an extended sympathetic sit-down interview that's fine, but there must be thorough reporting of facts in addition to her jubilant cheerleading. It's one thing for a sports reporter to hug a player on a winning team after a big game (which would be weird and unprofessional), but that would be very trivial in nature compared to a complex hard news story involving homicide. I am in no way calling for Ms. Moon's job, but whomever is in charge of assigning her to this story in this fashion should be questioned. Ms. Moon has clearly destroyed any journalistic credibility she had, but judging from a quick search of her background and previous stories, that doesn't seem to matter much to her anyway. She appears more interested in being known as one of St. Louis' top singles: http://www.stlmag.com/St-Louis-Magazine/November-2011/The-Top-Singles-in-St-Louis-2011/index.php?cparticle=2&siarticle=1 and shes more interested in getting to the bottom of hard hitting issues like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZzfXozhNzc I don't know much about Liberty University's Journalism department, but perhaps that is where this bizarre notion that what a reporter believes to be true is more important than telling a complete, factual story. I'm grasping for straws as this is one of the most head-shaking situations I've ever seen. Perhaps I'm a Mizzou educated Journalism snob that believes in the importance of the profession, but this has simply made me sick and angry.more2013-11-15T21:37:04.196Z
- Joy MayerThanks for the comments, guys. For those of you focusing on the issue of whether this reporter was out of line to hug Ryan Ferguson, here's my response: http...Thanks for the comments, guys. For those of you focusing on the issue of whether this reporter was out of line to hug Ryan Ferguson, here's my response: http://joymayer.com/2013/11/15/a-debate-about-facts-and-ethics-becomes-a-debate-about-hugging/more2013-11-15T19:31:04.647Z
- Brad BeloteThis. Is. Awesome. And explains why reporters get it wrong. There is a lot more nuance in the world than is often reported.2013-11-15T14:18:18.418Z
- Mindy McAdamsThis is an excellent account, Joy. Well done. The ethics of the reporter, Moon, are definitely worthy of discussion.2013-11-15T13:46:02.214Z
- Ryan KellyBy focusing Ms. Moon’s alleged transgressions in the forms of Tweets and hugs, I believe you are missing out on a far more interesting and important story on...By focusing Ms. Moon’s alleged transgressions in the forms of Tweets and hugs, I believe you are missing out on a far more interesting and important story on the media’s role in this case. The local coverage, particularly from arrest to trial, was palpably anti-Ferguson, and at times appallingly so. They unquestioningly repeated everything fed to them by police and prosecutors without subjecting it to any scrutiny or independent investigation of their own. Had they done so, they would have found that there were serious flaws with the State’s theory of the case. Someone there should have been in Kevin Crane’s face with a microphone asking him tough questions. Instead they were behind him, pom-poms and skirt, cheerleading as two innocent young men were railroaded. So instead of asking whether Ms. Moon was too celebratory about an obvious injustice being corrected, perhaps it would be more productive to look at how the media can contribute to these kinds of injustices being committed in the first place when they abdicate their role as the fourth estate in favor of acting as a PR firm for law enforcement.more2013-11-15T04:21:06.808Z
- Ryan KellyThis characterization of Mr. Hulshof’s record is charitable to the point of being false. He was not merely “involved in cases that were overturned on judicial...This characterization of Mr. Hulshof’s record is charitable to the point of being false. He was not merely “involved in cases that were overturned on judicial review.” Multiple courts found him to have committed egregious prosecutorial misconduct, including presenting testimony that he either knew or should have known to be false and blatantly misrepresenting evidence to the jury during closing argument. Saying that he was “involved in cases that were overturned on judicial review” is like saying that Bernie Madoff was “involved in business dealings where his clients lost money.” And if Mrs. Madoff were preaching to victims of securities fraud about being careful with their money, I do not believe it would be “snark” for others to question her authority to do so.more2013-11-15T04:15:47.203Z
- Perugia Murder FileI admire Melanie's courage. Ryan Ferguson IS clearly innocent. The case against him never made sense to begin with, and all that was ever offered was tainted...I admire Melanie's courage. Ryan Ferguson IS clearly innocent. The case against him never made sense to begin with, and all that was ever offered was tainted evidence (which has now been recanted). The only problem would be if Melanie HIDE her bias and reported favorably about Ryan. And she never has hidden her bias.more2013-11-15T04:01:21.279Z
- Perugia Murder FileI admire Melanie's courage. Ryan Ferguson IS clearly innocent. The case against him never made sense to begin with, and all that was ever offered was tainted...I admire Melanie's courage. Ryan Ferguson IS clearly innocent. The case against him never made sense to begin with, and all that was ever offered was tainted evidence (which has now been recanted). The only problem would be if Melanie HIDE her bias and reported favorably about Ryan. And she never has hidden her bias.more2013-11-15T04:01:21.118Z