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Our decision to air Sen. Johnson's impaired comments

Posted at 3:29 PM on December 14, 2006 by Bill Wareham

This morning we got access to audio of the reporter conference call that South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson was conducting when he started showing signs of impairment that would eventually lead to his hospitalization and brain surgery. We aired some of that audio at about 7:50 a.m. in a segment during which regular medical commentator Dr. Jon Hallberg discussed Johnson's condition.

The decision to air that audio did not sit well with some listeners. Here's part of one e-mail we received:

I am really disturbed by MPR's decision to run the tape of the Senator Johnson's medical incident ... until the condition of Senator Johnson is confirmed, doesn't his family and friends deserve a waiting period before his problems are aired--it is an odd
and morbid act of disrespectful journalism.

I did not hear the segment, but my boss, program director Chris Worthington, did and he called in to ask the on-air staff to pull the audio from circulation.

At our regular morning editorial meeting we discussed the decision to air the audio. It was clear the early morning staffers who made the call did not do so without careful thought. Central to their argument was that it would provide a vivid educational moment for listeners, informing them of how stroke-like systems can manifest.

But there were those among us who did feel, like the listener above, that even though this moment played out in a public forum, it essentially turned private when Johnson ended up in the hospital.

This is a unique enough situation that I don't think we can draw a rule around it. I do think that following this morning's discussion and the feedback we've gotten that we'd be far more cautious if a similar situation confronts us in the future.