By Vince Duffy, RTDNA Chairman
I received an email recently from a listener angry enough to write the most common threat I hear from my public radio audience, “I will never donate to your station again!”
We hadn’t libeled or defamed this man. We didn’t misquote him or make an error in a story he thought was important. He wasn’t even accusing us of left-or-right wing bias.
What prompted this man’s anger was our reporting about a bill in the Michigan legislature. Right now in Michigan it’s not technically illegal for a teacher to have sex with a high school student if the student is also an adult. Lawmakers want to change that.
Here’s the offending sentence from our news story: “The bill was sparked by concerns from prosecutors who said they were unable to charge teachers who had sex with students if the students were over 18.”
The listener wrote that his 10 and 12-year-old daughters were in the room when “these words came flying out of the radio without warning.” He was upset that our story created an uncomfortable conversation with his children, and demanded that any future stories about adults having sex with children contain a warning before the story airs.
Our station is not the kind of station that airs stories simply because of their titillation value. We don’t report on women arrested while driving topless, or follow public officials into strip clubs for ambush interviews. But some stories are going to have adult themes, such as the coverage this week of the events at Penn State, or the proposed legislation described above.
Whenever we air a story we know may be particularly offensive, either because of adult sexual content or graphic descriptions of violence, we do caution listeners that some people might find the upcoming story offensive or uncomfortable.
(Oddly, I’ve never received a letter complaining that a story had too much violent content, only too much sexual content. Exposing children to violence doesn’t seem to generate letters.)
But none of us in the newsroom, not the writer, or the editor, or the anchor gave pause to the sentence about teachers having sex with students. None of us saw that sentence and thought, “Hey, wait a minute, that’s over the line.”
Part of the reason, of course, is that we don’t write our news stories with children in mind. We don’t promote ourselves as “safe for the whole family” and unfortunately, news often has ugly themes. I can come up with a very long list of topics that might create uncomfortable conversations if parents are listening to our station with children in earshot….terrorism, homosexuality, animal cruelty, kidnappings, genocide, racism, drug abuse, abortion,….and, of course, the big one…sex.
Shouldn’t adults expect that these issues and many others will be mentioned and even discussed during in-depth in news programs?
When we discussed this letter in our newsroom, responses ranged from “It’s not our job to parent his children, he shouldn’t let them listen if he thinks it’s not suitable,” to “This was a teachable moment for him. He could have talked about how sometimes grownups do bad things and the people who make the laws are trying to stop them.”
As a parent of my own young girls, I can tell you that realizing something is a “teachable moment” almost always happens long after the moment passes.
It’s simply not possible to pre-warn every parent about an upcoming sentence they might not want their children to hear. I suppose we could do a rating system. (“The following news story is rated PG-13 for mature themes and a description of an adult presidential candidate allegedly misbehaving.”) While such a system might occasionally serve as good forward promotion, it would eat up a lot of time, and who would be responsible for rating each story?
Almost every bit of published advice on this topic tells parents they should talk to their children about what they see or hear on the news that maybe disturbing. Clearly some parents would rather not be forced to have the discussion right now.
How do you handle this in your newsroom? Do you have any industry or corporate guidelines you follow?
- A glimmer of good news
- RTDNA Region 8 Director named
- RTDNF to honor Gannett's Dave Lougee
- Federal shield law: Member call to action!