by Kerry Martin
I was reminded of an important lesson for both journalists and communicators yesterday while listening to the story of the New Jersey news reporter who was suspended for giving his personal opinion on the air. While covering a story of a police officer shooting in Jersey City, News 12 reporter Sean Bergin credited the underlying cause of an anti-police mentality to “young black men growing up without fathers.” In response to his suspension (and voluntary resignation), Bergin admitted he knew he “was breaking the rules.”
What he did wrong was not what he said or how he said it, it’s that he was the one who was delivering the message; he was the wrong spokesperson.
The role of news reporters, public relations professionals and communicators is to tell a story—using the voices of subject matter experts, credible eyewitnesses and official spokespersons. With the exception of editorial writers and news pundits, journalists aren’t supposed to inject their own opinion into their coverage.
Bergin explained that because the New Jersey police officers were in the middle of the investigation, they couldn’t comment on the story. The only perspective Bergin aired was the comment from the widow of the man who fatally shot the officer, saying her husband should have killed more officers before they shot and killed him.
My question is why Bergin felt that the only way to share another side to the story was to express it himself. Could he not have interviewed retired police officers, sociologists, spiritual leaders in the community or African-American studies professors to comment on the troubling outcomes of gang violence and statistics that could point to an underlying cause?
This is a solid lesson for anyone in the communications profession. There are many ways to express viewpoints through different spokespersons, but you should be prepared for what may come when you take it upon yourself to be the messenger.