May 10, 2010

Striving for objectivity

As a former staffer with Duhamel Broadcasting some 50 years ago – and as a frequent watcher of KOTA-TV news – I was surprised and a bit disappointed about recent developments surrounding Shad Olson.

Mr. Olson, an anchorman at the ABC affiliate, reportedly spoke at an April political rally in Rapid City sponsored by Tea Party folks. According to the Rapid City Journal, his remarks were in support of principles embraced by the Tea Party. By such advocacy, he allowed himself to be publicly associated with a political movement, thus undermining his role as a reporter.

KOTA News Director John Petersen – appropriately – suspended Olson from his on-air chores, but kept him on the payroll. Subsequent reports indicated that Olson, who has been with the station for about 10 years, would be reinstated.

We didn’t hear Olson’s remarks to the Tea Party group, and our information about all aspects of these events came from newspaper and web reports.

There’s been quite a stir created by this incident. Recent letters to the editor in the Journal suggest that KOTA unduly stripped Olson of his First Amendment rights to free speech. They believe that his First Amendment rights trump the First Amendment rights of KOTA, and that the courts should intercede. I smell a lot of lawyers fees.

Having watched and enjoyed Shad Olson quite a bit over the past few years, I was surprised and disappointed that he would step into harm’s way by getting publicly involved with partisan politics rather than reporting on them.

We believe KOTA took appropriate action. However, Olson’s reported reinstatement may be another matter. IF he acknowledged that his actions were the result of a lapse in journalistic judgment, then reinstatement is in order. If not – we wonder about KOTA’s commitment to journalistic integrity, and our disappointment would be compounded.

In a media world where the line between news reporting and editorial opinion seems to no longer exist, fairness and objectivity is truly an endangered species. Cynics are quick to argue that as long as human beings are involved, there can be no such thing as truly fair and objective reporting.

I would suggest that when reporters and media organization abandon their quest for fairness and objectivity, we all lose.

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