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Tuned In: After suicide, stations should rethink 'gotcha stories'

The "sweeps" months, when local TV news promotions and "special reports" are at their most over-the-top, have become a routine annoyance to discerning television viewers. Less than a week into the current November sweeps period, they've taken a tragic turn.

The Rev. Brent Dugan, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon, committed suicide last week after KDKA-TV aired a series of promotions for a Marty Griffin report that suggested Dugan was involved in illicit behavior.

Some viewers sent me understandably emotional e-mails that were as hyperbolic as the TV news promos they decry (one subject line: "KDKA's Assassination of Ben Avon Pastor"). That goes too far. It was Dugan's choice to overdose on aspirin and alcohol in a Mercer County motel. But this tragic outcome ought to make reporters and news directors in all newsrooms, particularly KDKA management and Griffin, take a contemplative look at the impact salacious, fear-mongering sweeps-month promos and reports can have.

TV news has an obligation to uncover wrongdoing, but too often stations appear to be more excited about reporting stories that bring themselves attention. Were the accusations in Griffin's investigation true? Did the report merit airing? There's no way of knowing because the story never aired.

KDKA general manager Chris Pike said the station would have no comment beyond a statement released Friday night that expressed condolences to Dugan's family and friends and explained that KDKA had "conducted a monthlong investigation into reports of public and illegal sexual behavior by Pastor Dugan. The results of that investigation were scheduled to air [Thursday] evening. ... That evening the station received information from someone close to Pastor Dugan that indicated that he was considering doing harm to himself. As a result, the station made the decision not to air the story."

News director John Verrilli would not say whether Griffin's story will air; on Friday afternoon Pike said it was unlikely to air. Griffin did not respond to a message on his work voice mail seeking comment.

Promos for the report were broadcast for several days last week. They showed Griffin confronting Dugan about his alleged visits to an adult bookstore. It was unclear from the promos what other details the report would reveal.

During the 11 p.m. news Thursday, Griffin said his investigation "uncovered illicit, possibly illegal, activity by a local minister, activities which, at the very least, violated the rules of his denomination."

It's the use of key words -- possibly illegal, at the very least -- that call into question whether the report was worth doing in the first place. If the best Griffin could dig up was a trip to an adult bookstore (not illegal) and violation of church rules, then there's not much in it to serve the public interest. It comes off looking like another "gotcha"-style story designed for no benefit except the TV station's ratings.

What aired Thursday did not mention Dugan by name; he wasn't shown on screen. His church and denomination were not named. But Dugan was pictured in promos that aired for several days earlier on KDKA. The damage was done.

Even if you give station management the benefit of the doubt that they were unaware of Dugan's threat to himself when they chose to air the promos, you have to ask, do TV station promos for stories of wrongdoing have to be so licking-their-chops sensational? They're designed to lure viewers, but clearly they can have unintended consequences as well.

The possibility of the harm they can cause -- not only to the person under investigation, but to his family and community -- needs to be considered. (It should be noted, someone could just as easily be provoked by newspaper stories, but, tabloids aside, you don't usually see the print media stoop to scare tactics to promote upcoming reports.)

And why did KDKA air the promos and Thursday night's non-report and choose not to cover Dugan's suicide? Verrilli wouldn't comment on that, either.

For Griffin, provocative reporting is nothing new. During last November's sweeps -- a four-week period during which Nielsen Media Research measures viewership so stations can set advertising rates -- Griffin ventured onto Port Authority property while reporting on lax security at a bus garage. He was eventually found not guilty of trespassing on appeal.

Griffin worked at KXAS-TV in Dallas in the 1990s, when he reported on sexual assault allegations against two Dallas Cowboy football players by a former topless dancer. She later recanted, according to a 1997 Dallas Morning News report, and the players sued KXAS and Griffin. The station settled with the players for $2.2 million, according to the Dallas paper. Griffin's attorney told the paper that the reporter admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.

One would hope the death of a human being would cause station management and staff to re-evaluate the way they cover and promote news, particularly sweeps- month features. Disgusted viewers may choose not to watch KDKA, but there's a problem with that approach: The lower that stations' ratings go, the more desperate for attention they tend to get and the greater the lengths they'll try. (Remember the tawdry tone of WPXI's newscasts when they were a perennial third place?)

With a thirst for profit driving media conglomerates' news coverage, this sort of thing could happen again. That may be the greatest tragedy of all. ..more.. by Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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