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Credibility crisis?

Should Boston viewers care how Joe Kennedy feels about WCVB-TV ? And should the station tell them?

In a promotional campaign that began running last week, the Boston station has let viewers know that it rates high in the hearts of a couple of prominent Boston pols, among others. And that's raised some ethical concerns regarding the WCVB 's ability to be independent of the influence of prominent newsmakers who endorse the station.

In one spot, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino praises the station for its local programming and attention to major local events, and former congressman-and possible gubernatorial candidate-Joe Kennedy praises the station's commitment to localism and its leadership. Other, less-well known folk appear as well in the spot to praise WCVB-TV 's local commitment. The station chose the citizenry from among many it says have contacted the station to compliment its community-oriented efforts. Both Menino and Kennedy, it says, have worked with the Hearst-Argyle station on community programs.

The remarks were voluntary, the station said, and there was no compensation involved. And the promo focuses on the station's community activities and entertainment-oriented coverage of local events like the arrival of the Tall Ships, said General Manager Paul LaCamera, not its local news. Other promos will discuss the station's news product, he said.

Any one believing the station has compromised the independence of its news operations in airing the testimonials, said LaCamera, need only look at last week's coverage of Menino's State of the City address. WCVB-TV aired loud protests outside the event from firefighters embroiled in a contract dispute with the city. "That was very embarrassing to the mayor," LaCamera said. "But we gave full voice to the protesters. That should affirm that our coverage goes on in the same straight way.

"We drew a line between news coverage and community tradition," LaCamera continued, "and that's what we talked with those folks about. This station has a broader image than just its news product." The promos, LaCamera said, dealt with WCVB 's "legacy of community involvement" and not its news product, and neither Menino nor Kennedy commented on the station's news.

But the promo, said the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele, is problematic because it addresses issues of news independence, even if "the journalists at ch. 5 continue to approach these stories with their usual journalistic expertise, as I believe they will. They can defend their position by citing specific instances of news coverage; but that's like trying to prove a negative. Then, the station becomes the story. It's hard for viewers to distinguish between the news department's coverage of issues and events from the station's coverage of the Tall Ships and other community events that are outside of traditional news coverage. In many instances, the same reporters and anchors are used.

"It's an ethical pothole," Steele said, "not a landmine. But if viewers believe the station is less vigorous in its coverage of the mayor, or of Joe Kennedy, that can erode the station's credibility. The benefits of these testimonials are minimal compared with the potential challenges to their independence, and by extension, to their credibility. I think very few television stations would run the risk WCVB is running."