Do Fox 4 Viewers Really Have Any "Rights"?
Published on Saturday, 21 November 2009 01:11
WFTX-TV Fox 4 is one of the few stations in the United States with a "Viewers' Bill of Rights." It promises the station will be accountable to viewers, explain its coverage decisions, correct errors and report straight facts.
The man who created this detailed "Viewers' Bill of Rights" (found here on the station's website) believed in it, but knew that self-policing such an ethical code could be risky. "Witness what happened to Enron, which had one of the best business codes of ethics ever written," former Fox 4 News Director Forrest Carr wrote a few years ago. (Click here for story with comment from Mr. Carr from Poynter.org, a site dedicated to journalism studies.)
Mr. Carr has moved on to another station in the Journal Broadcast Group, WGUN in Tucson, AZ, where he instituted a similar Viewers' Bill of Rights. He takes it seriously by regularly responding to viewers' concerns. But he foresaw that such promises could amount to empty words if a station didn't carry them out.
The Ave Herald first came across Fox 4's Viewers' Bill of Rights when seeking a way to contact the station about what we believed to be numerous factual errors and misrepresentations in the first of three stories the station ran about Ave Maria blogger Marielena Stuart, a resident who is not permitted on the university campus. The Viewers' Bill of Rights promised, among other things, to correct mistakes "promptly and prominently."
The Ave Herald brought these inaccuracies to the attention of the Fox 4 assignment editor and to the station's vice president and general manager, Judy Kenney, in phone calls and detailed emails.
Not only were the mistakes not corrected, but more accumulated. In two gross misrepresentations:
- Fox 4 reporter Pooja Lodhia said Mrs. Stuart and her family "stay home now because most of the property around her home is university owned." Not only does the university own just a fifth of the property in the town of Ave Maria, its campus is more than a half-mile from her house and there is no need to walk on campus to get directly from her house to the parks, downtown shops or other recreational amenities.
- Ms. Lodhia stood in the middle of Ave Maria Blvd., supposedly demonstrating that Mrs. Stuart had to confine herself to walking down the center line because, Ms. Lodhia said, Ave Maria University owned the land on both sides. Routine fact checking would have determined that the sidewalk on the west side of the road is owned by the Ave Maria Stewardship Community District and is not university property.
Follow-up phone calls and emails to Fox 4 were not returned. The station that publicly promises to be "accountable" and to "publicly explain its news coverage" was becoming as elusive as an Enron executive.
After finally receiving a one-sentence reply from Ms. Kenney stating that the station "stands by its stories and its reporters," The Ave Herald turned its focus to the meaning and intent of the Viewers' Bill of Rights. How do viewers' exercise these "rights," we wanted to know?
Calls to Ms. Kenney, interim news director Wendy MacNeill, Journal Broadcast Group VP of News Bill Berra and the company's executive vice-president Jim Prather were not returned.
Finally, we reached Ms. Kenney by phone. We asked her to explain aspects of the Viewers' Bill of Rights, part of which states, "Fox 4 understands that we are among the powerful whom you must hold accountable. We will listen to our viewers and will regularly and publicly explain our coverage decisions to you."
"I'm done," Ms. Kenney replied, and hung up.