A debate about facts and ethics becomes a debate about hugging

It’s curious to me that my story yesterday about a St. Louis TV reporter’s questionable journalism has been distilled by so many into a black-or-white conversation about one question: Should journalists hug sources?

I really want to be talking about how sad it is that a large-market TV reporter covering a nationwide story had a key fact about the case dead wrong.

But first, let’s address the hugging thing.

I’ve hugged sources and will continue to hug sources. The same way it is sometimes most polite to accept a piece of pie in a source’s living room or tell a source you’re sincerely sorry for a struggle she’s having, it has sometimes felt appropriate to me to accept or offer a hug as part of my work as a journalist. There are times when backing off a hug when it’s offered would be awkward or rude.

The trick is to know when the emotion behind the hug would compromise my ability to do my job, or when the perception the hug leaves would compromise my integrity.

I’m actually an advocate for journalists embracing their humanness, and I’m vocal in my suspicion of black-or-white ideas about objectivity. My work in journalism lies in the changing nature of the relationship between journalist and audience/community. Frankly, I’m not a fan of living by a lot of strict rules in general. And a journalism that bans hugging altogether isn’t one I’m interested in.

Which is why I was interested in a Twitter conversation Wednesday night about journalists having been seen hugging Ryan Ferguson and his family. I wanted to see where the conversation went. My interest turned to curiosity and then outrage when the reporter I was talking to made it clear she was completely misinformed about a key fact of the story she was covering.

(If you missed my story, read it here: How a St. Louis TV reporter got both ethics and facts wrong.)

I’m disturbed by Melanie Moon’s cheerleader style of reporting on a controversial news story and her apparent pride in sitting squarely on Ferguson’s side. I’m also disturbed that she thought she could take back her problematic tweets by deleting them.

But I’m even more disturbed by the fact that she didn’t read or didn’t understand what the court ruling actually said. Even when faced with evidence that she was wrong, she didn’t back down.

I’m willing to forgive a hug (or sometimes applaud it). But I can’t forgive irresponsible distribution of facts.

Let’s pay attention to THAT problem, and bemoan the fact that so many people get their news from Moon and others like her rather than people who prioritize accuracy over emotion.

      News coverage of the dustup that focuses on hugging:

      News coverage of the dustup that focuses on facts:


5 thoughts on “A debate about facts and ethics becomes a debate about hugging

  1. The thing that surprises me the most about Moon is that she doubled-down on her wrong assertions regarding the court ruling rather than seek to clarify. I’m sure she could have found a law professor at Wash U or Mizzou who could have explained it to her. Probably would have been a nice thing for her viewers, too. Our justice system is a big, complex beast, and she really missed an opportunity to educate her audience on how this runs much deeper than guilt or innocence.

  2. Great post, Joy. I have to admit, the old-school journalist in me got pulled into the hug issue a bit, too — I still wonder about a public display of affection for a source for a journalist covering such a high-profile story. But I agree with your sentiment: We should never lose our humanity.

    There’s a great scene in “Deadline in Disaster,” the documentary about the Joplin Globe covering the horrific 2011 tornado, where a reporter describes going to the hospital right after the storm hit and seeing the number of people who needed help. He said he set down his notebook, donned his “citizen” hat, and helped whoever needed help. To me, that’s just being a compassionate human being.

    1. Having co-produced the documentary “Deadline In Disaster,” and having done the original Tweet that set this current dialogue in motion, I agree that there are times a hug for a suffering person who gets caught in the news is not just OK but a human response of compassion. During more than 22 years with The Associated Press and in a journalism career of three decades, it was a rule that one doesn’t get too close to sources, and if one does get too close, one recuses or is excused from coverage. Just for the record, and as you can see from my initial Tweet in Joy’s original item, I noted on live TV some media – unnamed – hugging Bill Ferguson in jubilation. That is different from providing comfort to a suffering person. It is joining in a celebration. It is taking sides, which Melanie Moon now acknowledges. It risks the appearance if not the fact of impartiality. Melanie Moon volunteered in a reply to my initial Tweet that she hugged both Ryan and Bill Ferguson. Before that, I had never heard of Melanie Moon. This illustrates the reach of social media, as well as the limitations of 140-character exchanges on substantial subjects. Melanie Moon outed herself. With a (retired) reporter’s curiousity, I checked her other Tweets. They included a solicitation for donations to a fund personally benefitting Ryan Ferguson as well as posting her picture of Ryan Ferguson with his arm around her, much as Barbara Walters poses with the celebrities she interviews, for publicity purposes. These facts did nothing to give me confidence in Melanie Moon’s credibility or impartiality as a journalist. Melanie Moon may be a nice person, but she has dug herself in a deeper hole. I will be interested in her station management’s take on this episode. I will also be interested in continuing coverage that remembers the homicide victim, Kent Heitholt.

      1. I’m not going to defend Ms. Moon, but I am much more disturbed by how the pro-law enforcement coverage by the local media of Ferguson’s case back in ’04-’05 helped convict him in the court of public opinion before his trial in the courts of law had even started. That’s often a problem in these cases, the Ken Burns documentary on the Central Park Five case well illustrates how the New York media contributed to things going horribly wrong there. I thought Tony Messenger’s most recent column was very revealing about the problem here. He talked about how he knew the prosecutor and lead detective personally, and suggested that their assurances helped convince him that Ryan Ferguson was guilty. That kind of coziness between reporters and law enforcement seems incompatible with the concept of the media as the fourth estate, does it not? Read this article, it declared Ryan Ferguson guilty on the eve of his trial. http://archive.columbiatribune.com/2005/oct/20051016pers001.asp

        So while Ms. Moon may have crossed some lines she shouldn’t have, I don’t think a reporter being too celebratory over the correction of an obvious injustice is as troubling as the fact that the media can and often does play a role in bringing about these kinds of injustices in the first place.

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