Thursday, January 04, 2007

Motives of Journalists on Trial in Andy Griffith Show

This past weekend I was watching an Andy Griffith episode with my kids. To be more specific, it was episode #61, "Andy on Trial," which aired in April 1962.

In some ways the story reminded me of a situation in southwest Missouri where a journalist is using his/her position to grind a personal ax. That is a dangerous and unethical practice and something most honest journalists avoid. But, it is something that is easy to let happen when newspaper staffs are so thin that the same journalist ends up writing both news stories and editorials.

Let me make the point by giving a recap of the Andy Griffith episode:

Andy travels to Raleigh to locate noted newspaper publisher J. Howard Jackson and bring him back to Mayberry. Two weeks earlier, Andy ticketed the businessman for speeding. Mr. Jackson was issued a summons to appear before the Mayberry justice of the peace (Andy) within a few days. He chose to ignore the summons.

Now, a very irritated Mr. Jackson, accompanied by his lawyer, reluctantly returns to the small town to stand before Andy. He pleads guilty and is fined $15. Upset by having to travel that far to pay such a small fine, the irate publisher leaves the courthouse vowing revenge. When he returns to Raleigh, he orders one of his reporters, Jean Boswell, to go to Mayberry and dig up all the "dirt" she can find on Andy, then twist it into a scathing article against the sheriff. He wants Andy’s reputation destroyed.

Being very discreet, the reporter taps Barney for anything that could be used against Andy. Barney, caught up in all the attention, proceeds to tell the reporter that if he were in charge he would run the sheriff's department differently. Barney continues to complain about crimes going unpunished (Emma Watson's jaywalking) and the blatant unofficial use of the squad car (delivering groceries to a shut-in). As you can imagine, Mr. Jackson uses Barney's words to write a scathing article about Andy's administration.

The episode concludes with a hearing to determine if the charges against Andy can be substantiated... . Barney reluctantly tells the court that he did say the things printed in the article ... (but) goes on to defend Andy as the best friend he and the town of Mayberry ever had.

Barney Fife may have summed up the problem in this TV show, and in the real life problem, best by saying, "When you are dealing with people you do a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book, but by the heart."

Journalists are in the people business. Yes, go after wrong doers and pursue the information citizens need to know but make sure your reporting is accurate. It is also good to remember that every story and editorial impacts a real person. That fact should be weighed against what is written and the accuracy of it, especially if the journalist is tempted to "go after" someone with a story or editorial

What do you think?


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