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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Catchy Title or Needless Deception?

Jessica Silliman

Deana Stephenson was a news reporter for a top-50 market. She was more than a pretty face for the camera- she did investigative work and took full control of her own assignments and stories.

After a couple years at the TV station, Deana began pursuing a story on a pharmaceutical company which had recently come out with a possible cancer treatment. After a thorough investigation, Deana's own research raised questions about the key drug in the treatment. In the 1970s it had been found to dangerously cut off the blood supply in pregnant women. The development of the medicine was still in its early stages and Deana wanted to make it clear in her report that it had yet to pass all the required tests.

After hearing about the story, the promotions department at the station approached Deana about a possible title for her piece: "The Answer to Cancer." Deana was shocked at the title-her work had shown nothing about this treatment being an answer-if anything, it was a danger.

"It's great to have a catchy title," said Deana. "But 'The Answer to Cancer' was misleading. This was just one drug being studied and was not a cure." Deana feared that the title would give false hope to cancer patients.

Deana often got frustrated with various aspects of television news, but she knew when to pick her battles. She felt this particular cause was extremely important.

Frustrated with the promotions department's efforts to "sell the news," she approached them about the title. "I told them, 'I have the tapes and I will erase them if you use that title-then you won't have a story,'" she said.

The promotions department responded by working with Deana to change the title. Her piece ran the next month with great viewer response.

Discussion Questions:

  • How would you describe the conflict of values Deana faced as she considered the title for her piece proposed by the promotions department?
  • Do you think this was a good battle for Deana to pick? What would have been the benefits and costs of not doing so?
  • Do you think Deana was right to threaten to erase the tapes? Do you think there were other ways for her to respond?
  • What implications could using the original title have had on Deana and the network?

Jessica Silliman was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2007

Jun 1, 2007