A Tragedy of Ethics
March 2003

by Jim Parisi

They say in Rhode Island if you don’t know a person, then you know someone who does know him. So since I was born and raised in Providence I pour over the list of those who died in that tragic nightclub fire last week…some surnames look too familiar. Brothers or sisters of those I went to school with maybe. I shed tears watching this story unfold. It could have been a family member trapped in there. It could have been me, since I had my Coastal News office in West Warwick last summer…just a few miles from The Station.

There are questions that haunt…questions about how such a tragedy could have been avoided.

But this column is about TV news, not life tragedies. So in that regard, there are haunting questions as well, but of a different ilk. For news managers, and as a longtime news manager, there are a few questions that I know the Channel 12 News Director and GM are thinking about that are not connected at all to the grieving process.

Questions like how could you let one of your reporters do a story that involved a business he owned? Are you kidding? It was bad enough to see the cameraman in the club and to learn later that a WPRI-TV reporter owned the club. Then worse to learn they were doing a story on ‘safety’ after the Chicago tragedy where people were trampled, and that Jeffrey Derderian was going to be the reporter for the piece.

But then we hear that they choose this club for two reasons: Because it was convenient, and because.. get this…The Station nightclub was “a good example” of a venue that met safety codes. Now this isn’t rumor. Those are the exact words that aired on WPRI’s very own newscast after the tragedy. So let me get this straight: the news folks over at WPRI had no ethical problems with having their reporter do a story that shows HIS OWN BUSINESS in a positive light??? That violates everything I ever learned about journalistic ethics! They didn’t even keep Derderian away from the story and let someone else do it for a better ‘appearance’ of fairness. The TV station knew their reporter owned the place, and after ONE WEEK on the job trusted him to be objective writing a story that involved his own nightclub.

When I first heard the tragic story...the network piece ended with this sentence: “WPRI has a special interest in this nightclub because one of their reporters was part owner.” That comment shocked me, but no one else seemed to pick up on it. I mean, after about 16 or so broadcast jobs in my life, never once did I see management take an interest in what employees owned in their personal life. Put it this way, if the front desk assistant owned a bakery, would you ever hear a news report say “the station has a special interest in that bakery because the secretary owns it”??? Just as news people try not to even know what the sales folks are up to lest they have unethical ‘tugging’ going on in their newsroom, most try not to get too involved in anything that could even vaguely be perceived as unethical. So what the hell was Channel 12 doing, on the reporters first week on the job allowing him to write a piece on safety using B-roll of his own club???

Now understand, I am very fond of the RI media. I worked at several radio stations there, and shadowed the late great Jack Burns years ago when I was learning the craft at WPRI. I’m sure the current people there are ethical and wonderful people. But if ND Gary Brown isn’t sleeping much these days because 97 people died at his reporter’s club, he shouldn’t take it so hard. WPRI if anything, will help solve this tragedy because of the valuable video shot by their photographer that fateful night. But Brown and other news managers who knew about this unethical situation shouldn’t get much sleep these days over helping ruin what little credibility is left for journalists. I for one am embarrassed for journalists everywhere for the poor judgment and outright arrogance in the decision they made that night to let their reporter promote himself so blatantly.

The band Great White and the nightclub The Station obviously learned a difficult lesson after this unthinkable tragedy. Let’s hope WPRI learned a few things about ethics as well.

© Jim Parisi

(Jim Parisi dabbles in television news management where he specializes in interactive news, is a former anchor/reporter, and is the editor of www.tvnewz.com.)


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