Journalism ethicist Stephen Ward commented that he was “uncomfortable” with TV journalist Jennifer Livingston using part of her Wisconsin WKBT news program to give a “four-minute rebuttal to a viewer’s email criticizing her weight,” TV broadcasting news site TV News Check reported.
Livingston made the news this month when she reacted on air to a viewer letter posted by her husband and fellow WKBT journalist Mike Thompson. Thompson explained on Good Morning America that he posted the letter because the viewer, Kenneth Krause, “doesn’t know” his wife or her background. According to WKBT, Krause had written to Livingston:
“It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Krause told ABC News that “I truly apologize” but that he had “no intent to offend anyone” and “never meant to hurt Jennifer in any way.” Krause defended himself from accusations of bullying and said he was “obese as a child.” In addition, WKBT reported that Krause said,
“Given this country’s present epidemic of obesity and the many truly horrible diseases related thereto, and considering Jennifer Livingston’s fortuitous position in the community, I hope she will finally take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity to influence the health and psychological well-being of Coulee Region children by transforming herself for all of her viewers to see over the next year, and, to that end, I would be absolutely pleased to offer Jennifer any advice or support she would be willing to accept.”
Ward, who directs the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, noted that Livingston’s “intervention sparked good discussion about obesity.” But, he is quoted as saying:
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“That said, I am still uncomfortable when journalists use their power and access to media for their own ends — whatever ends they may be, good or bad…In particular, I am uncomfortable with using a newscast as the forum for such a personal intervention.”
As an alternative, TV News Check reported that Ward suggested the station could have done something more neutral about obesity instead of just Livingston’s reaction to Krause.
However, TV News Check noted that Livingston’s station news director, Anne Paape, said the station was “comfortable” with Livingston’s reaction, calling it “truly a local conversation that caught fire.” According to TV News Check, which cited several journalists or ethicists in its report, Poynter’s Al Tompkins argued that Livingston’s case is “a great story” and worthy of airing. He added:
“I would challenge you to find four more minutes that you or any other La Crosse station have produced in the last months that have produced a more engaging conversation than this.”
iMediaEthics has written to WKBT’s news director Anne Paape for more information, including what went into the decision to air Livingston’s response, and will update with any response.
iMediaEthics wrote earlier this month about Thai TV anchor Sorrayuth Suthasanachinda who was criticized for using his news show to respond to the National Anti-Corruption Commission’s charges of embezzlement and bribery against him.