A lifetime of ethical choices for Duluth anchorman
By TAYLOR HOUSLEY
The night of April 9th, 1990 was the last time a Duluth police officer was killed in the line of duty. Dennis Anderson, anchor at WDIO-TV, was a few minutes into the ten o'clock newscast when a panicked producer ran into the studio and told Anderson "two police officers were just involved in a shooting."
Live on the air when a tragedy arises, what should a journalist tell its viewers?
What was Anderson to do? Should he continue with the newscast and wait until the facts were verified, or tell the northland what had just happened?
"It was a quick decision on my part, but it was my job to tell my viewers what was happening," said Anderson in an interview.
Dennis ran into the newsroom during commercial break and jotted down what he heard on the police scanner.
"I knew that when police officers put on their uniforms each day they take a risk of losing their lives, so after I had the facts I decided to tell the northland," said Anderson.
This question of ethics is something that journalists need to be careful of.
"Lots of things are reported on the police scanner that turn out to be untrue. What officers say on the police radio is not journalism," said Carol Knopes in a phone interview, the Director of Education Projects at The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).
Dennis Anderson told the northland what was happening every second, he was telling folks what he was hearing on the police scanner. In Anderson's book he explains that that
it isn't his usual policy to grab information right off the scanner and put it on the air, but this was absolute. He said that he could hear the excitement in their voices, and this wasn't a 'maybe' event, but it was the real thing.
"It is okay to tell viewers what is going on, but journalists need to be careful if they start to reveal names," said Knopes from RTNDA.
Anderson wasn't revealing any names, but keeping viewers informed and updated on what was happening at the scene.
"We shouldn't report the raw early conversation we hear, because our job is to report the truth," said Steve Goodspeed, News Director at WDIO-TV.
Ray Higgins, the WDIO sports anchor at the time and Karen Sunderman, a member of the news staff both rushed to the scene and it wasn't long before they were live and reporting back and forth with Anderson in the studio.
"That is the first thing we do when we hear something major over the scanner, we send someone out. We send them out, not to just get video footage, but to verify our facts," said Goodspeed.
From the Poynter Institute, Bob Steele's tip sheet on Ways to Approach Ethical Decision-
Making it helps a journalist decide how to deal with certain situations by going through a check list. Anderson's decision would be considered a gut reaction, filled with emotions. Anderson has some good reasoning because he had verified his facts, and minutes after the incident happened there were reporters on the scene.
Even though journalists have the temptation to tell people what is happening, ethically their job is to seek the truth and report it. The facts need to be verified, because in the end the journalist doesn't want to be the one apologizing for making a mistake.
Anderson said that one of the competitors had revealed on the night of April 9th that officer Wilson had been killed, which was false. Officer Wilson didn't die until the morning of April 10th, around 8:30 am. If journalists are going to be taking the risk to inform viewers, like Anderson did, they have to be correct.
When comparing the Duluth News Tribune newspaper, they were articulate when printing their facts. When newspapers were distributed on April 10th, there was a picture on the front page with little description on what had actually happened, and then the story was pushed back to 6A. It was April 11th, when they published a full article on what happened from beginning to end, mostly dedicated to Sgt. Wilson, because he had died the day before. The newspaper took 36 more hours to work on the project.
"There have been many ethical situations that I have gotten myself into right before airtime, and it is always hard to decide what to say to my viewers," said Anderson.
On November 10, 1975 the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald sank, he heard the news from a phone call from a Duluth woman. He called the Coast Guard at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to confirm his facts and thirty minutes later he was going live on the air with a news bulletin. He was verifying facts and telling the viewers what he was hearing. He was the first journalist to break the story.
"Even though all journalists want to be the first one to break a story, we need to be willing to not be first but to get the story right," said Goodspeed.
Also, the night of December 1, 1993, about thirty minutes till airtime, Minnesota's worst plane crash happened. Anderson took a call from a lady that said there was a plane down but not sure what type. Anderson made a phone call to the FAA control tower at Duluth's International Airport and confirmed that a plane was down. Fifteen minutes before air time Anderson gathered some facts and learned that the flight crashed and killed every passenger on board. Anderson knew that the first thing to do was get someone to the scene so he could have some facts verified, and then he told the northland what was happening.
"It isn't bad to tell our viewers what is happening, our viewers want to be continuously updated. Legally we can say what we hear on the scanner, but do we want to be known for doing that?" said Goodspeed.
Goodspeed explained that it always depends on what the situation is, when deciding to make a story out of what they are hearing over the police scanner. If there was a house fire they wouldn't report on it right away, but if there was a fire at a large corporation that would be something that they would probably tell their viewers.
The thousands of northland viewers all enjoy to become informed as soon as an incident has happened. People of the northland know Dennis Anderson as a legend and expert when dealing with broadcast journalism.
"When it was over, I never received any criticism for what I decided to tell the northland about Sgt. Wilson," said Anderson.