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Most Egregious Must-See Media Malpractice Case of 2011

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By HVmedia on August 1, 2011

This boy is 4 years old. He lives in a violence-plagued Chicago neighborhood, and according to his quote on WBBM, he is “not scared of nothing.” When he gets older he says “I’m going to have me a gun!”

That’s how it unfolded on the local CBS affiliate’s newscast last month. “Hai guys, thug violence is so bad in this city that even this itty bitty kid wants a gun, didya see our awesome report?”

To properly freak the f*&k out of white people already terrified by out-of-control gang violence in the city, WBBM surveyed a crime scene and found a 4-year-old boy worth interviewing and airing. Yes, the network deemed a 4-year-old boy at a crime scene to be worthy of comment.

And after he was interviewed, producers decided to air this part:

4-year-old boy: “I’m not scared of nothing.”

Photographer: “When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Photographer: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

The scary exchange can be seen about 40 seconds into this WBBM package:

Alright, are we ready for what hit the cutting-room floor after “I’m going to have me a gun!”? Here goes:

Photographer: “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I’m going to be the police!”

Photographer: “OK, then you can have one.”

The boy, in the face of crime he already knows too well, wants a gun because he wants to be a police officer! That’s not good enough? That’s not enough of a good story? Of course not. The world needs villains, the world needs bad guys, and WBBM was happy to portray this little lad as someone who might grow up to harm these viewers. Eyeballs.

So which is the worse transgression here: Airing a soundbite from a 4-year-old boy at a crime scene in the first place, or editing his comments to make him look like another trigger-happy thug in the making?

The station, only after it got caught red-handed by the eagles eyes over at Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, apologized for both “mistakes.” WBBM Vice President and News Director Jeff Kiernan wrote via e-mail to the Poynter Institute: “The airing of the 4-year-old’s soundbite was a mistake, and the writing and the editing of the soundbite was a mistake.” He added, “WBBM-TV takes responsibility for the story. It was wrong to air the story in the first place.”

That apology is far from adequate. These are not mistakes. They’re gross errors in judgment that should lead to firings. Every single staff member at WBBM knows it’s wrong to exploit a small child by interviewing them, and every single staff member at WBBM knows it’s wrong to truncate or manipulate soundbites to twist their purpose or meaning.

But while Poynter, Maynard and every other organization, website or blog that comments on this story will justifiably continue to focus on the media ethics angle, there’s a larger issue here: What does it say about our society when a small boy shown at a crime scene who wants to grow up to be a force for good and pillar of his community isn’t a compelling enough angle in the larger story?

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