Beware of “Gotcha” Journalism

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When transit strikers in New York City went on strike last December, I tuned into NY1, a local news station owned by Time Warner and carried exclusively on the company’s cable system. The station had up-to-the-minute information on the labor negotiations and traffic situation. I didn’t bother to watch the local ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC affiliates. In fact, I haven’t watched very much local television news since the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for one reason: It makes my stomach turn.

Local newscasts have, unfortunately, turned into a mish-mash of fluff stories, promotional pieces, pre-packaged and biased video stories, and “gotcha!” journalism. The latter is a specialty of local television stations, which often employ an investigative reporter whose job it is to take complaints from viewers and, when the story is juicy enough, follow up with camera in hand.

Make no mistake, local television investigative reporters do a fair amount of solid work, and more often than not, they end up helping people who really do need it. There are plenty of times, however, when local television investigative journalists don’t have a clue, and worse, they create a story out of thin air. Apple Computer learned this lesson last week.

Anna Werner is chief of CBS 5 Eyewitness News’ Investigative Unit, heading the “I-Team” for the local CBS affiliate in the San Francisco Bay Area. Werner is an accomplished journalist who “uncovered the hazards of Firestone ATX tires, resulting in the largest tire recall in U.S. history,” according to her station’s website. She’s won a number of awards, including the prestigious Peabody Award twice. However, Werner’s latest I-Team piece is far from award-winning. At best, it’s slimy “gotcha!” journalism. At worst, it’s just plain garbage.

Werner’s story begins with a lead-in from anchor Ken Bastida, who says that “a letter from a third-grader changed a company’s corporate practices” after “CBS 5 got interested in an unusual complaint from a viewer.” Werner is then introduced, and she notes that the station usually investigates “some very serious subjects,” but that “the unusual nature of [this complaint] just piqued our interest.”

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In short, Werner’s story is about a nine-year-old girl who wrote a letter to Apple Computer’s Chief Executive Officer, Steve Jobs. In the letter, the young girl outlined some ideas she thought would improve the company’s popular iPod. The girl wrote the letter as part of a class project that involved learning how to write business and formal correspondences.

Three months passed before the girl received a reply, and the reply was not to her liking.

“She was very upset, and kinda threw the letter up in the air and ran in her room and slammed her door,” the girl’s mother said.

The letter the girl received back was a standard letter that many companies send out to people who have written in with product suggestions. The letter, from Apple’s legal department, states that Apple does not accept unsolicited ideas from consumers, and that the writer should read the legal policies posted on Apple’s website to learn why.

The video accompanying the story shows the young girl playing with her iPod, and sitting with her mother on the couch while talking to Werner, who terms Apple’s response “harsh,” says the girl “waited three whole months,” and when speaking, emphasized words and terms designed to make the story more dramatic.

The girl’s mother does her damage as well, saying Apple’s response was not “appropriate … for a third-grader” and that the family was “stunned” by the response. The mother then says that the letter sent from Apple was “unacceptable,” especially coming from a company “that tries to promote itself as an educator of children.”

Ending the piece, Werner notes that Apple did not reply to a request for comment, but that the company’s corporate counsel did call the girl directly to apologize. More so, Apple, according to Werner, held a meeting to discuss the incident and come up with new guidelines on dealing with communications from children. But it was the anchor, Bastida, who got in the last word, noting that Jobs lives in the Bay Area, and “he watches TV; I’m sure he’s going to see this tonight and feel very foolish, and get back to us.”

Now, as most of you probably know, companies such as Apple do not accept unsolicited product idea submissions because of the legal ramifications. If, for example, the young girl’s idea of improving the iPod by having the device store song lyrics (“so [people] can sing along”) is incorporated into the product, what is to stop the girl’s parents from suing Apple for stealing her idea? The practice of not accepting these types of communications is as old as patent, trademark and copyright law, and it’s something that I would have thought most adults should comprehend – which is why watching Werner’s story was so aggravating.

For starters, Werner never explains why Apple sends out these types of letters. She never gives a point of reference for why Apple would reply in such a fashion, leaving the viewer wondering if Apple is just a bunch of cold-hearted, corporate types. Not once does Werner state that Apple’s response is standard operating procedure for virtually every company on the planet that deals with any type of intellectual property.

Second, Werner also does not give any point of reference to how many letters Apple or Jobs receives each week, month or year. I think it goes without saying that Apple receives a lot of written communications each day, and that it takes quite a while for actual human beings to respond to letters. The implication, however, is that Apple just doesn’t care, because the company waited “three whole months” before responding.

Third, the girl is portrayed as some sort of victim here, which certainly isn’t the case. What the girl got was a very small and meaningless dose of the reality of the adult world. I’m not going to tell anyone how to raise their children, but instead of whining to an investigative reporter about a non-issue, I would have used the experience to teach my child a broader lesson about intellectual property, the legal system and the corporate world.

Fourth, the mother comes off as some sort of crusader, when in reality, she’s a dolt. Why was it so hard for her to believe that her daughter received this type of letter? Does she not understand the legal implications here, or that companies received thousands of letters each year and don’t have the resources to respond to every letter individually? I guess I should give the mother credit though – she would make a fine public relations person, because she’s shown she can turn absolutely nothing into a story. (Someone hire her, fast!)

I’ve written a lot in the past about how to deal with the public, so you would think that I would take Apple to task here, at least a little bit. But I won’t do that. The reality of the situation is that Apple has to respond to that letter, and regardless of whether the letter is typed and perfectly written or it’s in crayon, the legal department has to send that response. So instead of hammering Apple, I’ll give the company credit.

The follow-up phone call from the company’s general counsel and the fact that Apple decided to look into how it responds to children was an appropriate response. I hope that Apple would have taken the same steps if the mother had merely complained to the company as opposed to the media doing so on her behalf. Regardless, the company recognized not an error on its part but how “gotcha!” journalism can smear a company’s image.

The most frustrating part of this story is that it is getting some exposure. I read about it on, which is a well-trafficked website that covers everything Apple. I got to the website from, a very well-trafficked website that will crash newspaper servers and turn small stories into big ones. The story also wound up being shown on the local CBS affiliate in Sacramento, and it made its way onto quite a few well-read tech blogs.

I honestly don’t know what Apple could have done differently here. Perhaps if the company had responded to the original reporters’ inquiry, it could have defused the situation. By the same token, that would have been a victory for the reporter, as she could have gone on the air with a story saying that the “I-Team” had won another fight for the little guy.

The best way to deal with this type of journalism is by attacking the journalist head-on. If I was in the Apple PR department, I would have told the journalist in no uncertain terms that my company’s response was appropriate and on par with the type of response any letter-writer would have received from any company, including the journalists’ own employer. I would have noted that Apple reviews its practices on a regular basis and that while the company understands the girl is upset, it appreciates the fact that she likes the iPod, has suggestions to make it better, and took the time to write Jobs. I would have then called the girl, explained to her why she received the letter, and then sent her some swag (a t-shirt, iTunes coupon, etc.).

The most important part of this story, in my mind, is that the girl and her mother still don’t understand why they got the letter that they did. Werner did nothing to help the girl understand the situation. Instead, she took a cheap shot at Apple, and for no reason (which is amazing considering I can think of about 30 negative stories I could write about Apple at any given time).

In the end, Apple may look bad for a day or so in the eyes of a few thousand viewers or readers. The other adults involved – Werner, Bastida and the mother – will look stupid for much longer, and all because they resorted to “gotcha!” journalism, and turned nothing into a joke of a story.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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