Confronting conflicts of interest

24 Apr

Reporting on courts and crime isn’t always an easy task, especially if the news source you’re working for is the same one you grew up watching. That’s the case for Jessie Shafer, a reporter for WOWK in Huntington, West Virginia.

Shafer is a native of Kanawha county and as a crime reporter often runs into residents she knew from before she was a reporter. While having connections can sometimes be helpful when looking for sources for a story, these are not the sources she is looking for.

“I don’t want to risk it looking like I am giving someone a pass or being overly harsh because I know them,” Shafer said.

One time when Shafer showed up to the local court house to report on a local stabbing, the man being arraigned singled her out in front of the courtroom asking her not to put him on television.

“I was shocked,” Shafer said of the incident. “I didn’t even recognize him until he pointed me out. That’s when I realized we had gone to high school together.”

She told the camera person working with her at the time to keep filming. When she got back to the studio she told her superiors about the situation and the story was given to another person in the studio.

Social media is the reason Shafer feels the need to be transparent with her superiors and her viewers. With platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it makes it very easy for consumers of media to interact, and interact quickly, with those who they are watching. And if you make a mistake or aren’t transparent about who you know and who you are reporting on, someone WILL let you know.

With feature stories, Shafer’s guard isn’t as high about her acknowledging who she knows.

“Features are a different story. I have no problem letting people know that I am familiar or have a personal connection to certain stories,” said Shafer.

Shafer used to work for the Kanawha Charleston Humane Association and has reported on them a few times. For that story, she wasn’t afraid to let her viewers know that she has a personal connection with them.

Shafer has advice for others who might end up working in the media market they grew up in.

“At the end of the day, your gut tells you what you need to do,” Shafer said.

Especially with social media today, you don’t want to end up in a situation where your judgement about news is being questioned. She recommends that if you find yourself in a situation where your gut is questioning what is happening, that it should be enough to at least have a conversation with your management.

Biased news is certainly something a lot of journalists need to be cautious of. With today’s current attack on media, and “fake news” it’s very hard to ensure that we are being as honest and accurate and possible.

As someone who never planned to move back to her home market I never thought about the fact that if I were reporting on a crime it might be for someone I knew growing up. But as I’ve been hunting for jobs I keep inching closer and closer to where I grew up. And should I find a job at a publication near home, this is something I may face, and I don’t know that I would think at first to recuse myself from the story. Certainly, it may be something I think of now, should I find myself in that situation.

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