Allegations vs. news

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Why did VOCM ignore a story it had first?

Some bloggers, most notably Mark Watton and Ed Hollett, have been chiding VOCM for not covering the Danny Williams cell phone story.

It seems VOCM had the story first, but didn't run with it. The man who saw Williams breaking the law by talking on his cell whilst driving first made the allegation on VOCM Open Line. However, it was not picked up on the next newscast, which is surprising given how often they do spin news stories out of the call-in show. And it turned into a big story, with provincial and national coverage perhaps more than it warranted.

I called Gerry Phelan, news director at VOCM, to ask why they ignored the story. He explained that VOCM has a blanket policy of not reporting unfounded allegations.

"We did run a story eventually," he said, "but there was no story until he (the premier) admitted to it. There were no charges laid, there was no offence committed, it was an allegation."

This policy, Phelan explained, is based on the very real possibility that the allegations could be inaccurate or baseless and could thus cause serious harm to people's reputations.

VOCM did follow the story the next day when the premier admitted to the infraction, Phelan said. However, they did so reluctantly.

"We ran it that evening, much to my chagrin because it was still a non-story," Phelan said. "How often do you have to react to someone making an allegation? I still have a problem with (reporting on) someone making an allegation that may or may not be true. Where do you draw that line? Where do you stop?"

VOCM also has a policy of not announcing the names of individuals who are charged with a crime, with the exception of murder charges.

"We won't run anyone's name until they are convicted, no matter who they are," Phelan said. "That's been our policy for years. We never run anybody who has been charged with a crime, including sexual assault cases, unless they've been convicted of a crime. The exception is murder cases we do name people charged with murder. This policy was in effect long before I came here, and it's one that I had to defend myself during a period of time when Wally Millman was charged with sexual assault. We did not use his name until he was convicted. (Roman Catholic Priest) Jim Hickey's name was never on this radio station until he was convicted. So it has been a consistent policy and one that we have taken a lot of ribbing for. You get some other people who respect us for it. And we see no reason to change it."

Based on this explanation, I can accept and respect VOCM's approach to this story. In fact, I am planning to write another blog item in the near future about whether or not the media should report on police investigations or publicize the names of people who are charged with crimes. I know there are widely divergent views on this issue among my media colleagues. If you are a reporter or editor, I welcome your opinion on this. Please email your comments to geoff_meeker(at)yahoo(dot)ca.

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  • Mark
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    Just a small point of clarification. I wasn't suggesting that VOCM should make a news story out of any allegation that gets made on open line (although they certainly apply a double standard when baseless allegations about the federal government become news stories immediately after they're aired - but that's another story)

    I agree that baseless allegations shouldn't become news. My point was that 24 hours after the Premier's office itself had issued a news release, the story still had not, and never did appear on the VOCM site, despite the fact that they had the story first. It appeared elsewhere, right across the country. The Premier's mea culpa, issued by way of a press release from his own office, made it a viable news story.

    And yes, in comparison to everything else going on in the world, the Premier being accused of using a cell phone in his vehicle is a trivial matter. But then again, so is the return of a missing cat, which has, on occasion been deemed newsworthy in certain circles.