Ethics in the TV age
Not many classes at USC start out by showing an HBO dramatization of the McMartin pre-school trial, then segue into a discussion of how the media covered the sensational Menendez murder case.
In fact, there may not be a course in the nation like “Ethics of TV Journalism,” taught by School of Journalism director Murray Fromson with assistance from Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg.
Every major journalism program in the country offers courses in general ethics, but neither Northwestern University, Columbia University, University of Missouri nor University of Texas at Austin has an undergraduate ethics class specifically devoted to the medium that arguably needs it the most: TV journalism.
The class is very timely. With several sensational murder cases broadcast live and accompanied by instant commentary and analysis, public interest in TV journalism ethics is at an all-time high.
“We thought a contemporary course – reflecting issues and concerns that would be very real to young people – would have a considerable amount of attraction,” Fromson said. “TV is something they’ve been watching all of their lives. These are people of the television age.” Some classic examples of abuse:
- a TV reporter sleeping with a source to get exclusive information in the McMartin child-abuse trial;
- a judge playing to the TV camera by setting an unusually high bail in the Exxon Valdez case; and
- a TV news program reporting that blood on defendant O.J. Simpson’s clothing matched his DNA before any tests had been conducted.
“It’s important for all people in society to examine the media much more critically,” Rosenberg said. “It’s important not to just let them watch like mindless drones. If that happens, the media have too much power. If you’re too passive, the medium dictates to you. It fills you up like an empty stocking. That’s not healthy.”u0000
Every week, 142 students pour into a large auditorium at the Annenberg School for Communication. Flanked by two large television monitors, Fromson and Rosenberg stand on the stage and challenge the students.
After just a few meetings, the class had already delved into the sticky questions of what constitutes ethical reporting, what economic incentives drive unethical behavior and what are the consequences of such lapses. Sessions also have homed in on the phenomenon of televised courtroom coverage and its implications for the public, the press and the accused.
In a class that deals with such hot-button topics, the atmosphere can become electric. “There’s probably a third or more of the class that gets heavily involved in the debates,” said senior Mike Rush, a recording arts major in the School of Music. “Sometimes, you’ll have people across the room going back and forth.”
While watching a televised trial on HBO’s “America Undercover,” students heard a woman convicted of statutory rape cry out in dismay.
Fromson stopped the videotape and turned to the class: “What do you think about that? Should the public be exposed to this, or is it just titillation?”
“If you commit a crime, you’ve lost your right to privacy,” one student said. “It’s a public trial,” said another. “TV coverage is simply a means of opening up the system to more people.”
The exchange is typical, according to Fromson. “It’s interesting to me that the students will argue the way we journalists [do] – that the public has a right to know. I consider myself a First Amendment addict. Once you make exceptions to the rule, there’s no telling where it will end,” he said.
When the class turned its attention to the Simpson trial, the discussion got a little more heated than usual.
But even there, Fromson contends that cameras in the courtroom may have been a great benefit.
“I’m unhappy with the theatrics of the Simpson case, but the American people have got to understand how the law works,” Fromson said. “We’ve had a TV culture that has always portrayed the police efficiently and ethically: Dragnet, Hill Street Blues through NYPD. And suddenly people are getting a look at what reality is. It’s given people a chance to look at [our system of justice].”
During a recent class, the students viewed the HBO movie, Indictment: The McMartin Trial. The fact-based movie deals with the sensational 1983 child-molestation case involving the family that owned and operated a day care center in Manhattan Beach. Because of the scope and shocking nature of the charges, the trial received intense national publicity.
Indictment illustrates the media feeding-frenzy that enveloped the trial. It shows reporters physically knocking down defense attorneys, broadcasting unsubstantiated claims of abuse and, in one case, engaging in a clandestine affair with a key prosecution witness. That witness was later discredited by the defense, but only after months of shocking “exclusives” had worked the public into a froth.
Watching the film, the USC students responded with gasps and shocked outbursts at the media’s behavior. Despite the white-hot media flame that illuminated the case, no one was ever convicted of child abuse or any other charge.
“After this class, I trust TV news a lot less,” Rush said.
According to Rosenberg, who has covered the media for the last two decades, TV reporters and the quality of TV news are getting worse.
“Based on what I see on the screen, I see less and less ethics,” Rosenberg said. “TV news has gotten faster because of the technology. By going live all the time, it gives you less time to think of the ethical issues. You’re so caught up in this battle to be first, you end up acting instinctively instead of using your head. The ethics of TV journalism is on a downward slope.”
Before the term ends, the course will zoom in on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which is famous for its use of hidden cameras; the film Absence of Malice, which explores the balance between the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy; and the new UPN television show “Live Shot,” which depicts a television station and its reporters caught between a battle for ratings and their consciences.u0000u0000
A longtime foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and CBS News, Fromson has reported stories from Moscow, Cambodia, Korea and Vietnam. He began his career in 1951 as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes during the Korean War. In 1962, he opened the Los Angeles bureau for CBS News.
Fromson joined USC’s faculty in 1982. In addition to his duties as director of the School of Journalism, he is the creator of the Center for International Journalism.
Rosenberg is a nationally-renowned television critic and the winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the Los Angeles Times in 1978, after reporting for the Moline Dispatch and the Louisville Times.
For the past six years, Rosenberg has taught a class in television criticism at the School of Cinema-Television, critiquing the wide spectrum of TV formats – news, sports, drama and comedy.u0000