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TV Anchors Fight to Stay Objective in Coverage of Family Separation at Border

Gayle King hadn’t planned on traveling to Texas any time soon. But late last week she made a point of ensuring that “CBS This Morning” was prepared to cover a heart-wrenching story unfolding along the border between Texas and Mexico.

After reading several accounts of migrant children being separated from their parents after being caught making an illegal border crossing, and the potential effects of their incarceration, King on Saturday reached out to Ryan Kadro, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.” “I’m really concerned about this story and wanted to make sure we had all the bases covered,” King recalls telling Kadro. She ended up flying down to the Texas border herself to anchor coverage– a decision that has played a big part in putting a spotlight on the practice and stirring widespread outrage.

“All I can say after talking to people, watching the people, listening to the people, that the Statue of Liberty, I think, is weeping right now,” King told viewers on Monday. “It’s unbelievable, the stories we’ve heard.” NBC NewsLester Holt sounded a similar note during Monday’s broadcast of “NBC Nightly News” from McAllen, Texas. Holt told his audience: “What is happening here is testing our better angels on multiple fronts, challenging our competing values of protecting our sovereignty and honoring our hearts.”

The reactions are honest and the sentences are vivid. But there’s enough sentiment in the words to give some critics fodder to wonder if some of the nation’s news anchors are straying from their mission of staying objective. “It’s sort of the question that newsrooms should be asking: What is the line between telling a story that is sentimental , and influencing coverage of it?” says Ben Bogardus, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. “It is hard to explain both sides of the issue when you have one very emotional situation.”

The anchors are merely doing their jobs, trying to give viewers a sense of the events they are seeing up close. And like nearly ever other TV-news correspondent whose every word and action can be spliced, isolated and uploaded to social media, their remarks are easily taken out of context. “I’m always mindful people don’t want to hear your opinion. I get that,” says King, who has logged years at TV stations like WDAF and WFSB. “You just tell the story about what you are seeing, and really let the people decide.”

This isn’t the first news story to spark emotion on TV. CNN’s Anderson Cooper in 2005 became overwrought on air on at least two occasions while covering the damage from Hurricane Katrina; at one moment he even asked the camera crew to take him off the screen. The heightened demand for live, on-the-scene coverage in an era when TV-news outlets are wrestling for audience attention with new rivals who feature immersive coverage via streaming video means more TV anchors are likely to face similar situations.

Given visible and audible evidence of children’s anguish, and a Trump administration that has lied about elements of the controversy, “it would really be a dereliction of duty not to say ‘This is very difficult to listen to. This may be difficult to watch,'” says Judy Muller, a professor of journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. When anchors are covering events in the moment, she adds, “there are facts that are hard to be even-handed about.” She thinks viewers understand they are seeing a journalist in the midst of a situation in flux, trying to provide basic information what can often be chaotic circumstances.

Audiences are likely to continue to focus on the children as more TV-news outlets gain access to pictures and first-hand accounts of them sitting in holding facilities or recordings of kids and parents in anguish. Several news outlets are expected to feature prominent anchors delivering on-the-ground coverage in hours ahead. MSNBC has dispatched both Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes to Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, respectively, to anchor their primetime shows this evening. Laura Ingraham will host Fox News Channel’s “The Ingraham Angle” live from the border crossing of Otay Mesa in San Diego this evening. CNN has six different correspondents fanned out across Texas, Arizona and California to cover issues at the center of the debate.

They are all treading tricky ground. The issue has become so polarized and politically fraught that every TV correspondent is in danger launching their own viral chaos on Twitter and elsewhere.

Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham spurred negative reaction last night after citing a report in the San Diego Union Tribune to suggest the detention facilities were like “summer camps.” Feedback was intense enough to prompt the host in the last moment of her show to offer an addendum: “Apparently there are a lot of people very upset because we referred to some of the detention facilities tonight as essentially like summer camps. The ‘San Diego Union Tribune’ today described the facilities as essentially like what you would expect at a boarding school. So I will stick to there are some of them like boarding schools. And I suggest that a lot of the folks who are worried about that spend more time in Central America. I have. And we should make adoption easier for American couples who want to adopt these kids who are true candidates for adoption because our policies don’t allow that. So let’s put our hearts out there for the kids in the right way. Take care of them the right way. Open your hearts and your homes to them.”

Others may gain new recognition for their efforts on the story. NBC News’ Jacob Soboroff last week gained traction on social media for reporting on his trip to the biggest licensed child care facility in the nation for undocumented immigrant children.

CBS News correspondent David Begnaud has been reporting along the U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas since Saturday, and says he is mindful of covering many different aspects of what is happening along the U.S. border. “I’ve been adamant since I got here about keeping my emotion out of the story,” he said. Getting reaction from Border Patrol agents is an integral part of the tale, he says. “They feel like they’re under attack and that they are being treated unfairly,” he notes. Begnaud was allowed to join Border Patrol agents on a ride-along in which agents came across people who said they’d been traveling for months from Honduras. “In some ways they looked relieved to see the Border Patrol agents,” he said.

King says she isn’t second-guessing her coverage. “I wasn’t trying to draw attention, or create a moment,” she says. “It just really struck me: ‘Oh my gosh, what is happening here?'”

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