By Tim Hayes

Journalists and journalism have the noble responsibility to keep people in power honest.  To represent the public’s viewpoint in matters large and small.  And to serve as vigilant, objective overseers.

We saw two examples of journalists at work this past week – one that demonstrated courageous American journalism at its pointed, uncomfortable best, and one that pretty much fell flat on its face.

In early January, a ruptured tank permitted toxic chemicals from a Freedom Industries plant in West Virginia to leak into the Elk River, effectively eliminating access to clean water to approximately 300,000 people across Almost Heaven.  Even at this point, state officials still have not cleared the water as drinkable or usable in households.

A few days into the event, Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries, walked in front of a group of reporters gathered outside his plant.  Seen in this You Tube clip, Southern presents a walking, talking cluster of dichotomies.  His body language suggests a person in command of the situation, yet his answers become ever more evasive.  His company has caused hundreds of thousands of people to lose access to drinkable water, yet he casually sips at a bottle of Aquafina during this entire encounter.

But the best moment comes after an off-camera reporter asks him a follow-up question about the company’s safeguards regarding spills.  After Southern says, “I believe that’s all the time we have for questions” (an awkward moment, since such a statement usually comes from a public relations person to get the executive out of the line of fire, not the executive him- or herself!), he starts to walk away.  That’s when this journalist shouts back at Southern, “Hey!  We’re not done yet!” causing the chastened company president to reluctantly return and face more questioning.

If more journalists had the guts to do this more often, we’d all be better informed, better prepared, better off.  Too many people in politics, business, community organizations and other areas of life get off the hook too quickly and easily by lazy, ill-prepared, or uninquisitive journalists.

Or ones who can’t think of an intelligent question, but clumsily forge ahead anyway.

Like the reporter who asked NFL Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, after his team’s 23-10 playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, if he would be rooting for the Seattle Seahawks over the 49ers in the NFC championship game.  Smith’s response?  Priceless.

“You really want me to thump you upside the head?  That was the dumbest question, and that’s the second dumbest question you’ve asked. I only cheer for one team. Actually, two teams. My team and my kid’s team. Other than that I can give a bleep.”

Are these two examples a matter of comparing apples and oranges?  Perhaps, but the underlying principle is the same.  Journalism – in all of its manifestations – exists for a critically important reason.  To get at the truth, and to tell it as clearly and as objectively as possible.

For the people being asked the questions, it can be quite uncomfortable sometimes.  Good!  But for that very reason, journalists should remain relentless, insisting that their questions be addressed.  And at the same time, applying enough planning and thought themselves to ask the right, most intelligently formed, questions.

Copyright 2014 Tim Hayes Consulting, Transverse Park Productions LLC