Couric interviewed Palin well, but withholding footage was potentially unethical

When, as a journalist, you possess information that will have some impact on society, will effect people’s lives, or otherwise rises to some level of salient import, do you have an obligation to publish or broadcast that information immediately, or is it OK to hold it to serve the business needs of your newspaper or network?

I’m ruminating on this question in light of the past week’s dribbling of the Katie Couric interviews with Sarah Palin.

Couric interviewed Palin prior to Sept. 24. The first two segments can be viewed and read here. I didn’t think much about the two-part interview last week. After all, a TV news show has limited time. As much as I believe in web-first publishing, I could give a pass to CBS for holding the interviews for prime-time viewing first.

Then rumors began to circulate that there was more material not yet released. First, that Palin had not been able to name a Supreme Court case besides Roe vs. Wade. Then, yesterday, the video came out of Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper — not the Anchorage Daily News nor her hometown Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

Thus, we learned that CBS had withheld newsworthy quotes from the public.

Ethically, is that acceptable?

I doubt a single reader would disagree with these two assertions: That Palin’s answers to Couric were news, and that the answers could have an impact on both on the election and on public perceptions of Thursday night’s VP debate.

So let’s consider the consequences of how CBS handled these answers.

If CBS had released the full interview, either in broadcast or on the intertubes, on the first day the impact might have been:

  • The shock of all the stupidity coming out at at once could have even more quickly torpedo people’s opinions of Palin, McCain and the GOP; or,
  • It would have given both sides more time to dissect what it all means prior to the Thursday night debates, thereby giving voters more time to draw more nuanced conclusions (if that’s even possible in this case).

But the most important factor in a decision to hold the full interview or not is the impact it has on the politically important expectations game.

Experienced political observers know how it works: Lower expectations so that a candidate can rise to the occasion and look better than people believed he or she could. It’s a tried, true and infallible political tactic.

But in dribbling segments of the interview, CBS is able to incrementally lower the expectation that Palin is anything other than a dimwit who is neither engaged nor informed enough to serve as VP.

Loyal GOP partisans, of course, will believe that CBS has handled the interview as it has merely to more broadly and deeply embarrass the governor.

Experienced journalists know that it is unlikely that CBS executives have any political motivation whatsoever. The decision to incrementally release the interview has only one motivation: Ratings.

Which brings us back to the central question: Is it OK for a journalist or a news organization to make decisions about newsworthy events based on business concerns?

Again, clearly, the Palin interview is full of information people need to know.  Is it OK to withhold that information for any reason other than a journalisticly sound reason?

Let’s be clear: I’m not being inconsistent with things I’ve said in the past. The modern journalist cannot be completely divorced from concerns about ratings and readership, but that has more to do with story selection and presentation than what facts a reporter or editor chooses to release when.  My question is very narrow: When you know something to be true, what is your journalistic, ethical obligation to inform the public of that information?  Is it immediate, or can you hold it?

In a Twitter discussion about this topic today, Howard Weaver raised a challenging question about newspapers holding investigative packages for Sunday publication. In 140 chacters, what I think Howard was getting at, is it a business decision to hold for Sunday?

I guess it could be, but Sunday is also the day the most people take the most time with the printed word. If you have a significant issue that you want people to time with and think about, Sunday publication makes a lot of sense. It may be the ethically superior publication day for big-package stories (not so much on the web, though — site traffic plunges on weekends).  You’re also talking about a package that is designed to revolve around a coherent thesis.  The Palin interviews were chalk full of individual news nuggets. There was nothing investigative about it. It was good, probing questions by Katie Couric, but it produced news, not a deep and broad policy review.

Regular readers know, I believe in web-first publishing. I’ve always advocating web-first as an audience growth strategy, but it also has a journalistic component. Journalists should not withhold information from the public based on artificial deadlines.  When you know a fact that is newsworthy, you should tell people. To withhold the information is to rob readers and viewers of time to act on or ruminate over the news.

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