Editorial: In Dealing With Media, Expect Sensationalism and Bias

29 August 2013  
Out of town media outlets want big, sensational stories. And if they come, that's likely what they'll find. 

On Monday, we reported that County Attorney Sheila Polk had declined to release the autopsy photos of the Granite Mountain Hotshots without a court order.

eNewsAZ created a Thumb Poll on Tuesday and asked, "Should County Attorney Sheila Polk release autopsy photos of Yarnell firefighters to media?"

Yes: 12% (Do show the photos)

No: 88% (Don't show the photos)

Obviously, this is not a scientific poll, but it is of interest that the vast majority of people responding from across the country vehemently believe that the autopsy photos should not be released.

As a matter of fact, comments left on the Facebook version of the poll reflected the same sentiment: "No need!!!" "Absolutely not!!" and "No. No. Never. Why would anyone want to see them?????"

But, Mantthew Hendley, writing for the Phoenix New Times, had a much different result in his poll.

In the article, "Should the Autopsies of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Be Kept Under Wraps?" Hendley states,

"Autopsy reports are usually released to media outlets without anyone batting an eye, and it's unclear why the county believes that these autopsies, as well as photos of the scene, need to be kept from the public.

"Maybe there's something to hide in there? No one will ever know, without a court order."

And his poll which mimics the title of the article, asks, "Should the Autopsies of the Granite Mountain Hotshots Be Kept Under Wraps?"


Yes: 26.6% (Don't show the photos, keep them 'under wrap')

No: 73.4% (Do show the photos, 'unwrap' them)


Two opposite results. Why? What's the difference?

Well, the eNews poll simply asks the question. It is not attached to any story, and does not attempt to guide the reader into thinking one way or another. The New Times poll is included in the middle of an article, after a question which insinuates that Polk is hiding something.

Additionally the Phoenix New Times has a specific demographic they cater to. The Thumb poll was sent out to random people across the country.

It's also an excellent example of media manipulation. By insinuating wrongdoing and underhandedness on the part of Polk, it sets up the reader to think the photos need to be revealed.

As for the question of which media organizations requested the autopsy reports and photos?

AZ Republic - JJ Hensley
AZ Republic/USA Today - Dennis Wagner
KPNX TV - Eric Watson, Jason Sillman
NYT - Fernando Santos
KNXV TV - Maria Tomasch
AP - Bob Christie

Not Your Friends

It is dangerous to assume that when a big story takes place in Prescott, state and national media descend with goodwill, concern and genuine solicitation. The truth is they come to get a story, and the more they can sensationalize it, the better, as far as they're concerned.

Last year, when the bench controversy was taking place, a television reporter (who shall remain unnamed) came up from Phoenix. The story that was eventually televised was largely one-sided, from the perspective of the "pro-bench" people. I happened to know the reporter, and when I saw him at a later time, I told him that there was another side to the story, and I was disappointed in his coverage, since he should have given the public both perspectives. He looked at me and replied, "But my editor wanted sensational."

The day that Juliann Ashcraft gave her press conference, Brahm Resnik from Channel 12 News decided he wanted to talk to the Mayor. Actually Resnik demanded to speak to the Mayor, even threatening to follow him home. You can watch that conversation in the YouTube video shot by Jack Wilson

Here is the transcript of what Resnik said:

"Now, here's the deal. We've covered every aspect of this quite fairly, I believe.

"We've been wanting to speak to the Mayor about this. We need to speak to him today about this. Juliann Ashcraft said some very specific things today about the Mayor and him being the Ringleader of a group of council members who are denying these benefits and refusing to speak. So, we need to get the Mayor on camera, today… Why isn't the Mayor out here speaking to us? Where is the Mayor to speak to us. I'll put it more pointedly. We've got 5 hours. We've got the rest of the day to find the Mayor. It's probably not going to be really hard. And when we do, it's not going to be pretty. And he won't want it that way, and we don't want it that way. So, I suggest bringing the Mayor out so we can talk to him about this… He is the Mayor, he is the one those families are pointing to, and they want to hear from him. So, how about bringing out the Mayor? We're going to follow this guy, we'll go to his house, we'll go to his car…"

Ironically, the Mayor did come out and speak with the reporters when he had a break in his schedule. He spoke to them for several minutes and answered all their questions. Did the television stations air that interview?

"Well, I got a 'cameo' appearance," the Mayor later said with a chuckle.

What To Do

Dealing with media can be grueling and intimidating, even for those that are used to it. Here are some things to keep in mind if you are going to talk to the press.

1. Be prepared. Have pertinent documents available, as well as a notepad and pen so you can take notes yourself.

2. Record the interview for your own benefit. I cannot stress this enough. That way if the media takes something out of context, you can prove it. Some print reporters only take written notes, and they might not hear something clearly, or report it properly. Record it yourself. If you can't video tape it, at least use audio. If you have a smart phone, you can download inexpensive recording apps. Be up front about it. Say, "I am going to record this for my own purposes of verification."

3. Demand respect and courtesy. Get their business cards, so you can identify the reporters. Don't allow yourself to be bullied. Set up ground rules, and if they don't respect those, leave.

4. Keep your own temper and emotions in check. Stay calm. Remember, it's being recorded by you and them.

5. Always be honest. If you lie, they will catch you, and will publish it with glee and revelry. And really, you can't blame them much for that. (Think: Gary Hart, 1988 presidential campaign.)

6. Don't have expectations that they will publish everything you say. Most likely it will be heavily edited to fit a time limit or a word count. And of course, the most sensational phrase will be chosen.

7. Be concise. Don't volunteer information, just answer the questions.

8. Finally, you don't HAVE to speak to the press. You can decline. There is no law requiring you to give an interview.

Yes, There Are Some Good Reporters Out There

One more thing - not all reporters are like this. Not even all out of town reporters. Some provide very fair, balanced coverage. And for those reporters, our community, and all communities for that matter, offer a grateful thank you for handling the public trust responsibly and with integrity. 




Lynne LaMaster