What should have been a triumph for competitor WPRI-TV Providence, R.I., says WLNE(TV) Providence News Director Kathy Gazda, "has become Channel 12's worst nightmare."
A reporter and cameraman at the scene of the biggest story to hit the market in memory is typically a journalistic coup, even if the story is a horrific one. If your news team has "the shot"—as those at WFAA-TV and KXAS-TV Dallas did with the space shuttle disaster last month—tremendous attention and praise can accrue to your station.
But, although WPRI-TV cameraman Brian Butler's spectacular video of the Providence nightclub fire on Feb. 20 was seen within hours by millions of people over several networks, the ownership interest in The Station nightclub of WPRI-TV reporter Jeffrey Derderian, who was at the club during the fire, became increasingly central to the overall story.
A grand jury convened last week, beginning what is expected to be a lengthy investigation into possible criminal charges over the fire. Derderian and his brother Michael, co-owners of the club since 2002, are clearly potential targets of the investigation and could face homicide charges, even second-degree murder.
But amid the coverage of the tragedy, another story has emerged: journalistic ethics.
In the week following the tragedy, questions and comments from broadcasters and media ethicists have ranged from whether Derderian should have been allowed to keep an interest in a nightclub while working for a TV station to why he was reporting anything from a nightclub in which he had an interest.
"This is black-and-white," said Poynter Institute media-ethics expert Bob Steele. "The station was wrong, and he was wrong. His conflict of interest was profound. And it was exacerbated when he went and used his own establishment as part of the story. That's clearly wrong. Ethically and journalistically, that put him in competing roles that night."
Derderian, who had joined the LIN Television-owned station just last month from WHDH-TV Boston, remains on staff but has not worked since the fire. Officials at LIN and the station have been kept away from the media.
The station, through a public relations firm, has not ducked questions. And it continues to dispute the charges of ethical breaches. The station reiterated during the week its belief that there was no conflict because it was never Derderian's intent to promote his own interests, which were not hidden from his employers.
Butler and Derderian, the station has explained, were working on a story prompted, at the suggestion of a station consultant, by a Chicago nightclub stampede that led to 21 deaths early on Feb. 17. Butler was in the club to shoot "generic background bar-scene footage."
Derderian's reporting for the story would not be limited to the nightclub industry, and he had already looked at security at other, larger venues. But, "whether it was B-roll or not," said Steele, "it was highly journalistically inappropriate to have Derderian covering the story."
Opined a veteran former news director, "I think that someone didn't think this through. It was a good idea to do the follow-up to the nightclub incident in Chicago. And someone says, 'We've got a guy here who knows that business, who owns a club.' But he should not have been the principal reporter on the story."
One station-group executive said the outside business interests especially of on-air staff are scrutinized for conflicts and, while a reporter may have been allowed an interest in a nightclub, he or she wouldn't have been allowed to report from the business.
"It just becomes difficult when journalists have outside occupations," says Poynter media ethicist Al Tompkins.
And nightclubs, notes WLNE's Gazda, are "potentially volatile, potentially newsworthy. Forget the big tragedy; bars and clubs get busted all the time for comparatively minor stuff."