Media ethics sometimes lacking

By THOMAS JENKINSAs the search for 13-year-old Hailey Dunn of Colorado City gets ready to move into its fourth week, tensions within the small West Texas town and outlying communities continue to grow.And within those tensions are numerous rumors, miscommunications, false claims and bald face lies, growing like a cancerous tumor in the heart of a Lone Star region best known for its ability to pull together and protect its own.Missing since Dec. 27, Dunn's disappearance has served as a reminder to many West Texas parents that the sort of quietly assumed safety each of us enjoys living outside the hustle and bustle of larger metropolitan areas is fragile, at best. And, if anything, the Hailey Dunn case has shattered that illusion of safety, forcing many of us to take a second look at the safety of our children.While volunteers from all over the region — Big Spring, Abilene and San Angelo, just to name a few — continue to search the vast fields and brushy expanses of Colorado City and nearby communities, the need to bring Hailey Dunn home continues to mount.Unfortunately, bringing Hailey home isn't necessarily everyone's first priority. For many involved in this case, locating the young girl is simply a fringe benefit to be enjoyed while capitalizing on increased ratings that generate more and more advertising dollars.At the center of that media whirlwind is none other than Nancy Grace, former prosecuting attorney turned television personality for the HLN Network.Honestly, I'm not sure how much of the mishandling of this story can actually be blamed on Grace, who, as all media personalities do, answers to her network's head honchos. Regardless, it is her reputation she is putting on the line each night as she reports the details of the search for Dunn.We've all heard claims the media “sensationalizes” stories in efforts to drive up ratings, which, in the end, determines what they can charge for advertising. And, as much as I hate to admit it, it's true. Any media outlet that isn't a not-for-profit agency has to deal with this fact of life, and at any given time efforts are ongoing to identify methodologies to increase ratings or circulations.However, there is, and always should be, a line that shouldn't be crossed. Ever.You can call it ethics or just plain, old common sense, but there are just some things that should not be used to generate revenue, and a missing 13-year-old girl is a prime example.Shoddy reporting and fact finding, coupled with the mentality to “get it first, not necessarily right,” is what's driving Grace's supposed examination of the Dunn case. Of course, they want America to believe all they care about is helping young Hailey Dunn, and they don't want to discuss the way misreported and misrepresented details in the case have devastated Dunn's family and friends.There's a secret motto in television news many joke about but don't want the public to know about. “If it bleeds, it leads.” I can't tell you how many times I heard that during my four years as a television news journalist, and it still abounds today.With everyone on edge — especially parents — during this time, it's no wonder rumors run rampant. It's easy to pass judgment on Hailey's parents or Shawn Adkins — Billie Dunn's live-in boyfriend — right now. However, judgment should be left to the court system, where each of us is to be considered innocent until proven guilty.I'm sure Nancy Grace and her producers couldn't care less what a community newspaper reporter and writer like me thinks of them or what their reporting is doing to our communities. And I'm well aware my little rant here isn't likely to persuade anyone from gawking at her television show, night after night.It's hard to say whether the media's lack of ethics is a reflection of its viewers and their desires, or vice versa. What I do know, however, is changes are needed, and the American people are the only ones that can call for them.Regardless of the outcome of the Hailey Dunn case, let's hope the media — television, radio, newspapers and others — treats the matter with some dignity and respect. While the people involved with the search may seem like characters in a movie or television show, they aren't. They are our friends and neighbors, and they deserve our help and compassion.Contact Staff Writer Thomas Jenkins at 263-7331 ext. 232 or by e-mail at