Collaboration effective in changing newsroom environment

By Elayne Crecelius

Imagine this: you’re a parent and your daughter is nineteen and missing. After searching for her, authorities find her dead. A man is convicted for her death and sentenced to life in prison. Flash forward to ten years later. Now, a local news station shows a promo for a story in which a reporter interviewed the man that killed your daughter and he said he didn’t really kill her.

For any parents, this would seem like an awful nightmare. However, this unfortunate situation occurred between Barnum residents Katie Poirier’s family and the Northland’s Newscenter in Duluth, Minn., when a promotional announcement contained what the Poirier family interpreted as a platform for the killer to plead his innocence.

Michelle Lee, a reporter and anchor at the Northland’s Newscenter, has worked in journalism for thirty years. She's currently the primary anchor for the station's evening news.  According to her biography on the Northland’s Newscenter website, Lee is quoted as saying her favorite part of her job is “meeting people who are making a positive difference in our community and covering stories that have the potential to change lives for the better." Lee said that even though she is an anchor, she is also a journalist and reporter who will go where the story leads her. Lee has had her fair share of hard news stories to cover, including the one about the ten-year anniversary of a Barnum teenager’s brutal murder.

About 10 years ago, KARE11 News aired a story asking business owners in Moose Lake, Minn. to look at security videos for any clues that would lead to the discovery of a young woman who had been taken from her job at a gas station by a man. Poirier’s body was later found, burned beyond recognition. Forensic examinations were able to determine that before Poirier was killed, she had also been raped.  The small community was torn apart by this tragedy.

Donald Blom, who owned a summer house near Moose Lake, was arrested and found guilty of Poirier’s rape and murder. At the time of his conviction, authorities believed that in order to keep him safe in prison he should be moved to a facility in a different state. He was moved to a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania where he is currently serving a life sentence.

When Lee was approached by her news editor to do the 10-year piece on Poirier’s death, she wanted to bring to light the positive laws installed since Poirier’s death. She did not think that when she handed over her notes and research to the promotional department at her station that her story would develop into something much bigger.

While Lee’s news manager was away on vacation, the promotion for Lee’s story ran and upset many viewers in Moose Lake; the community where Poirier was not only kidnapped, but also where Lee lives. A phone interview Lee had conducted with Blom was recorded to capture a complete record of what was said throughout the interview. Lee asked Blom if he had killed Poirier, to which Blom answered no. This particular portion of the interview was never intended to be aired but ended up being included in the promotional announcement for the story.

The family of the murder victim got the impression that the story was a place where the convicted killer would be able to plead his innocence.

“The story was not a platform that allowed Blom to plead his innocence; it was information about how he is trying to work the system to be moved back to Minnesota,” said Barbra Reylets, a news manager at the station.

Calls to the station and internet groups began popping up with threats to pull advertisers from the station and also to hold a protest at the station the night the story was to air. The Northland’s Newscenter Facebook page filled with comments about how the story would “re-victimize the Poirier family” and remarks of how “sick” some viewers were with not only the news station, but mainly with Lee for following this story.

“I don’t want to leave, or retire, and know that something I did hurt a family who was already hurting,” Lee said. With that, both Lee and her news manager wrote up an apology for the promo and decided against airing the story.

In the apology, the news station stated what they had learned and what they had meant to show in Lee’s story. At the end of the segment, Lee stated the news station had aired a promotional announcement that was “wrong." After the story was pulled, remarks on the station’s Facebook page changed from those of condemning to commending, as viewers and relatives thanked the news station for making the decision to not air the story.

“It’s like if national news shows bodies from across the world, it is disturbing. But if those bodies were those of Northland individuals it would be more detrimental to our viewers,” Reyelts said.

Poirier’s tragedy occurred in the heart of the Northland’s Newscenter's viewing area and therefore the fall out of the promo’s effect was profound.

“We still plan on sharing the information in the story sometime, but not right now,” Reyelts said.

News editor Patty Dennis, from 9News in Denver, Colo., faced a similar problem when a tape containing the unaltered identities of a couple meant for a story aired in a station promo for the upcoming piece. The identities of the couple were supposed to be altered for their protection; however, this was not done before the story aired.

While the station did have to settle monetarily, Dennis said that in emotional instances such as the Poirier case it is important to “make sure you know the purpose of the story, especially one with so much emotion, and understand what the community will get from it.”

Dennis said it is important for victims' loved ones understand why a story, like Lee’s, is beneficial to educate viewers about laws that have resulted from tragedy.

Later, Dennis said that while the community’s best interest should be considered when writing a story, a news station’s job is not to “cow tow to people hurting in the community if the story has a greater purpose” and that the right to free press and not with holding information is the main goal of a news station.

Jill Geisler, a leadership and management leader at Poynter Institute, said in a phone interview “the mutual goal of a promotions department and a newsroom is to create a promo that is creative, compelling, and contextual.”

Geisler recalled an instance when a news organization she worked at ran the wrong picture of a man with an accusing title about the authenticity of the work he did as an attorney. Like Lee’s promo, it ran without the approval of a news editor or news manager.

“You must have a news room look at the promo… problems between promos and stories can arise when this doesn’t happen because of the tension between creativity versus context and accuracy.”

Geisler also said that the different backgrounds of the two departments can result in these problems too. A promotional department is more creative than the journalistic side where reporters use more critical thinking and analyzing skills.

According to Geisler, reporters go through the process of collecting information for not only the promo but also the entire story-making process. This means collecting more information than will be used in the promo. Reporters must work in cohesion with the promotional department to create an appealing promo for the viewers, but also keep the information in the promo in context with the greater purpose of the story.

“Something can be accurate and not contextual…promotions departments reduce complex stories into short messages; in the condensing one can lose context.”

For example, Geisler said reporters understand the difference between a homicide and a murder. While promotions department employees more than likely understand the difference as well, she said the word murder has the tendency to create more of a stir among viewers than a homicide would.

It is important for the promos of news stories to produce the viewership that a news station needs. However, it is more important for the promo to be completely clear as to what the main purpose of a story is while still creating a compelling, accurate and interesting promotional announcement for the public.

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