The arrest of a state senator’s wife for driving with a suspended license drew headlines and airtime Wednesday, but it also raised editorial questions about how salaciously anyone should have chased such “news” in the first place.
Summer Loveless, wife of Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-OKC), was arrested Sunday for traffic violations and released Monday after spending the night in the Oklahoma County Jail.
Sometime thereafter, she posted a Facebook message saying she had been “abused” by Oklahoma County Sheriff’s deputies at the jail.
The post was later deleted, but not before local media snagged the police report and Facebook comments and began reporting.
Is it newsworthy? Is it relevant?
One of the things you learn in journalism school is how to judge whether a story is newsworthy, accurate and relevant to the public’s best interests before publishing it.
I’m not sure this case met that threshold, but I’m not sure it didn’t. To help think out loud like the extrovert I am, I’ll employ some Socratic method:
- Is the spouse of an elected official being arrested for traffic violations newsworthy?
- If an elected official’s spouse makes unverified claims on Facebook — and then deletes them — does that ring the Pavlovian news bell as well?
News 9 — who I routinely joke should adopt the slogan “News 9, Crime All The Time!” — broke the story Wednesday shortly after 11 a.m. with the over-capitalized headline: “Oklahoma Senator’s Wife Arrested After Traffic Incident.”
Asked about how reporting unfolded, Sen. Loveless told NonDoc he only received a call for comment from News 9 after that story posted. I’ve previously questioned the wisdom of not calling a public figure for comment before publication, but this instance is even more lacking in editorial discretion: Sen. Loveless has appeared on News 9’s “The Hot Seat” segment as a commentator numerous times over the years.
In short, he actually helps contribute content to News 9’s newscasts, in a similar way to how he authored this commentary for NonDoc recently. But when it came time to run a story about his wife, the senator says he was only contacted for comment after the story had aired.
Examining News 9’s initial story actually helps answer my questions from above. In it, News 9 did not mention Summer Loveless’ Facebook rant, showing that the OKC-TV-market social media leader considered “politician’s spouse” enough prominence to warrant lunch-time publication.
Prominence, you may know, is one “news value” that journalists assess when determining what qualifies as news. Impact, weight, usefulness, educational value and several others flesh out the list, but it’s hard to argue a woman being arrested for traffic violations and a suspended license has impact, weight or even usefulness for the public.
It’s even harder to believe that a suspended-license violation would have made any newscast in the state for any other mother of two who wasn’t deemed “prominent.” So the implication is clear: News 9 — and Channels 4 and 5 who also followed with stories — determined that being married to a state senator qualifies you as a prominent figure.
That’s one heck of a statement. If Democratic Norman Sen. John Sparks’ wife, Elizabeth, is appointed to the local United Way board, will News 9 mention it on air, online and on social media? She’s apparently a public figure, by God.
For the record, search results indicate OKC’s Fox 25 appears to be the only network station not to run a story.
Eventually, KFOR’s Lorne Fultonburg spent a couple of hours literally reenacting Summer Loveless’ arrest. As one of Channel 4’s newest reporters, he doubled down and answered both of my questions through his reporting with a brash “Yes.”
With others now reporting the senator’s spouse’s arrest report, Channel 4 and the Red Dirt Report went for the gold and brought up her by-then-deleted Facebook rant. That, in fact, was Tim Farley’s lede and focus for the RDR, which also said Sen. Loveless “has been chastised by many in law enforcement circles” and overtly implied his wife’s arrest might somehow be related.
The Oklahoman only decided to cover the Loveless drama for its Thursday newspaper and didn’t post its story on NewsOK.com until today. Matt Dinger and/or his editor transitioned to the Facebook comments 100-or-so words in.
Allegedly covering one’s …
Channel 4’s Fultonburg, meanwhile, introduced the woman’s Facebook rant about the jail “where things ALLEGEDLY got even more heated.”
Ah yes, the word “allegedly.” Allegedly, using the word “allegedly” can allegedly protect journalists from being sued if what they report turns out to be false.
“It’s a word journalists should use no more often than necessary — and, more important, one that offers none of the protection some users seem to think it does,” says Scott Libin, formerly of the Poynter Institute.
Still, Channel 4’s reporter emphasized the word and then announced to the world that Summer Loveless had accused jailers of “abuse,” only to follow it up with a statement from Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel saying reviewed tapes show no abuse.
Then, Fultonburg capped his piece in the same way that Farley updated his hours after publication: with a statement from Sen. Loveless himself that called his wife’s online comments “venting” and offered personal perspective for a difficult situation that was now extremely public.
“We recently had our second child and, like many new mothers, my wife is battling postpartum depression,” the senator said in his statement. “She is sorry for the incident and has been seeking treatment.”
And there’s the other shoe — the one that probably explains most of what happened and that was so (un)artfully ferreted out by an aggressive group of journalists who thought an arrest for DUSWMP (Driving Under Suspension While Married to a Politician) was a major crime they had seen highlighted somewhere in their AP stylebooks.
Was it worth it? Of course not. Did it benefit the public? No. Did it make someone struggling with a mental health issue more vulnerable and shamed? Yes.
Ironically, News 9 might have actually been able to prevent all of this mostly pointless reporting if it had just called its oft-used political commentator PRIOR to running the story about his wife’s situation.
Perhaps Sen. Loveless could have shared the key information in confidence. If so, any news director with a heart would have likely asked, “What story are we really trying to tell here?”
I guess it’s just hard to ignore that Pavlovian news bell, but probably not as hard as it is for Summer Loveless to ignore all the things being said about her online.
(Editor’s Note: Good lord, a local PR practitioner just alerted me to the KOCO Channel 5 VIDEO story on this subject. The site says it was posted by digital editor Zak Patterson, but I don’t know if that’s him doing the overly dramatic reporting. Nonetheless, it might be the most ridiculous exercise in the bunch. I wonder if KOCO’s reporter thinks he “won” because they got footage of a man handing over a statement about his wife’s medical condition? Helluva job, fellas.)
(Editor’s Note Two: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Lorne Fultonberg’s name.)