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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

The Jokeís on Her   

A broad- casterís firing underscores the dangers of flip, potentially offensive remarks.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

An incident in Canada earlier this year re-emphasized why broadcast journalists have to be careful whenever they are in front of a camera or microphone.

Avery Haines, a new anchor for CTV's NewsNet all-news channel in Toronto, was fired in mid-January after she jokingly made derogatory remarks that were mistakenly aired on the Canadian network. Haines had been recording an introduction to a field report when she stumbled and began joking about it with the control room crew. A technician failed to purge the botched introduction from the computer system, and a short time later Haines' comments deriding lesbians, blacks and others were heard throughout Canada.

Although such episodes are not always reported, the inadvertent broadcast of offensive language or video during newscasts is a recurring problem. "We are constantly working with our clients about this," says Pete Seyfer, vice president for training and development for the media research and consulting company Frank N. Magid Associates Inc. "We tell them to always, always consider the microphone to be hot and never say anything, even under your breath, that you wouldn't want to say to your grandmother. Even when you think you are on a commercial break."

Consummate professionals like ABC anchorman Peter Jennings are not immune. When a studio camera malfunctioned during a late-January broadcast of "World News Tonight," the network went to a commercial. But the audio technician failed to cut off Jennings' microphone. Thinking he was talking solely to the control room, the anchorman asked, "Did the camera crap out?"

Some viewers were offended, prompting Jennings to explain in an e-mail posted the next day on abcnews.com that crap is "a technical term for sudden failure."

The use of crude four-letter words referring to sex and defecation can be particularly troublesome--whether used in jest or anger. As the sportscaster at Chicago's WFLD was winding up his segment in a 9 p.m. newscast a few years ago, veteran anchorman Walter Jacobson was heard yelling in the background, "Oh, fuck you!" The general manager later apologized to viewers, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

What's worse is when the faux pas is not aired live but is broadcast later because of a technical mistake like the one at CTV. Haines had been with CTV for just two months, but she had spent the previous 12 years as an anchor and reporter for Toronto radio station CFRB. She was recording her piece on an early Saturday morning when she messed up the narration. Realizing she would have to start over again, she began joking with the crew, making some self-deprecating remarks about becoming the stuttering newsreader for the network. "I kind of like the little stutter thing," she said. "It's like equal opportunity, right? We've got a stuttering newscaster, we've got the black, we've got the Asian, we've got the woman. I could be a lesbian, folk-dancing, black woman stutterer... I'd have a successful career, let me tell you."

Robert Hurst, CTV's vice president of news, says the network has a policy of "burning" bungled recordings from the computer system. But the technician failed to destroy this one, leaving it on the computer server. When the story was called up by automation later that morning, the original recording aired.

"I was in there an hour later with an immediate apology on the air," Hurst says. "We replayed the apology three times. Unfortunately, the mistake Miss Haines made was offensive to many, many, many Canadians. That broke our standards, which is our direct link of credibility to our audience. We pay our anchors a lot of money to uphold those standards. When our standards are broken, anybody involved must be disciplined."

Haines, who was on six months' probation, was dismissed, and two technicians were suspended for three days without pay. A month later Haines was hired as a reporter/anchor for a local Toronto TV station, Citytv.

The pressure and intensity of the business probably accounts for many of these mistakes, says Bill Silcock, a journalism instructor at the University of Missouri and managing editor for the NBC affiliate in Columbia. "Television news is kind of like 'M*A*S*H' on TV, where they relieve all that stress of doing those operations in a field hospital by joking and sarcasm," Silcock says. "They do the same thing in TV news to relieve the stress.

"There may be a place for that kind of relief in the camaraderie of a newsroom, but not in the studio or any other part where it can get on the air."