Channel Your Anger Into Reporting

Last night, WFAA sports anchor Dale Hansen devoted his “Hansen Unplugged” commentary segment to the Dallas Cowboys’ signing of Greg Hardy, who had previously been convicted of beating his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. Hardy appealed and the charges were later dropped when the victim didn’t cooperate with prosecutors.

In his segment, Hansen blasted the signing.

“Is there no line you won’t cross? Is there no crime you won’t accept? Is there no behavior you will not tolerate?” he said.

“Greg Hardy’s jersey is being sold at the Cowboys online pro shop now. You could get one for your sister or daughter and then explain to her that Hardy beats up women, but we’re cheering him now because he’s really good on game day, and game day is all that really matters to me. Your daughter will understand. But the reality is, if Hardy knocks on your front door to take your daughter out for a night on the town, the man you cheer now you would shoot his ass through the glass.”

It was a fist-pumping moment. I admit, I watched the video and said “yeah!” Hansen was taking a stand, the same way he admonished those in the NFL who called the openly-gay Michael Sam a “distraction,” or when he spoke openly about racism in a 4-minute monologue. I applauded Hansen for calling out the Cowboys.

But then I put on my journalist hat.

As a columnist, there was never a better feeling than writing an opinion piece in which you nailed somebody. When your words are eloquent, your arguments are sound, and your heart is in the right place, publishing a column can be a powerful tool – using the power of the press of enact change.

But being a columnist and being a reporter are two different things. Columnists share their thoughts. Reporters share facts. When the two blend together, the line is blurred and neither one is effective.

Because reporters have a higher responsibility to the public. People come to journalists seeking information, clarity, and facts. And journalists are in a unique position to be able to use mass media to share that information on a large scale. Don’t abuse that position of power. With great transmitters comes great responsibility.

And that’s why Hansen’s segment irks me. Hansen is the lead sports anchor at WFAA, responsible for gathering stories. And he’s also the station’s sports director, who leads the entire sports team in their coverage and decision-making. Last night, he threw down the gauntlet and proclaimed that this is the way we feel about Greg Hardy. Now, every story about the Cowboys or Hardy will be tainted by whether it’s coming from fact or emotion.

This isn’t about the importance of fact gathering (those were already handled in court) or an antiquated checklist of “getting both sides.” And it’s not even about deciding how your feel about Greg Hardy (I think we can all agree on that). It’s about perception, sway and how better to use your tools to make your point.

Because reporters are human. Hansen saw the Greg Hardy situation and reacted like all of us would have, with anger and disgust. But the problem became when he took his anger on the air, where he has a higher responsibility. The best news teams don’t just throw facts against the wall, they examine all sides of it and find people with solutions. They don’t just show the carnage and mayhem, they look for the causes and solutions. Does Hansen saying that fathers would “shoot Hardy’s ass through the glass” do anything to better the situation? Does it help the public? Or does it drag the already horrible situation down further?

Reporters have always encountered stories that pissed them off. We can’t be around death, destruction and corruption every day and not have a human reaction to it. But the question is, what form does your reaction take? Do you rant and rave and make up your mind about how you and viewers should feel? Or can you find an option that maintains your high responsibility as a public figure?

Sometimes it takes a trigger to get journalists fired up. The best journalists can find ways to take all that anger and channel it into their reporting. Turn the emotions into hard-hitting questions, diligent fact-finding, and powerful storytelling. Get the answers, or use someone’s own words and actions against them. You can still enact change and get your point across.

I would like to have seen Hansen apply his same effort into asking these questions directly to the Cowboys. Don’t just say the Cowboys are letting people play who use drugs, or who kill someone in a drunk driving crash – see if their actions reinforce that notion, and see if they have a good answer for those claims. Put Hardy under the microscope, too. Use the tools at your disposal to do more than write an angry column to read on the air. Make a difference with your effort.

In 1954, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow exposed the hypocrisy and fear-mongering of Senator Joseph McCarthy by using the senator’s own words and actions against him. He didn’t say that McCarthy was “lying his ass off,” he showed it, by presenting McCarthy’s claims against sourced facts. Murrow even learned things during the investigation, and admitted the areas in which McCarthy was accurate. The facts, once presented and weighed, showed McCarthy’s tactics and disgraced him, but ultimately it was his own actions that caused the downfall. Murrow simply pointed a camera at it.

Mad about the terrible reality? Then show that reality. It’s much more effective.

I admire Dale Hansen for standing up and speaking out publicly about an issue like this (and others). But it’s a delicate balance. The platform, the power, the topic and the responsibility all come into play. So find the best way to make your point that maintains that balance.

Because the alternative is just making up your own mind, and those who rely on your service as a journalist. Near the end of his segment, Hansen said of Cowboys coach Jason Garrett: “He’s one of two things: He’s either a fraud and hypocrite when he talks about having the right type of guys, character guys, on his team, or he really has no say in this and he’s simply the puppet so many of you think he is. It’s one or the other, and I’ll let him decide.”

But as for what viewers should think about that black-and-white scenario, Hansen had already made the decision for them.

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