Communications Masterclass: Discretion

Beyond the obvious “don’t be a dick on April Fool’s Day” advice, here are some notes on real-world applications for discretion in communication.

Yesterday’s NCAA men’s basketball game between Louisville and Duke featured a frightening situation when Louisville sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffered an open fracture of his lower right leg while landing awkward in front of his team’s bench. The bone popped out of the skin, leading to a visceral reaction from teammates and fans alike; indeed, Ware’s injury evoked comparisons to such devastating injuries as Joe Theismann’s shattered leg.

In the heat of the moment, and even the time after, protocol in a situation like this is dictated by sensitivity. But in regards to the major sources covering the event, it was handled very well by everybody.

I use something called the “HBO Test” when determining whether or not something is appropriate for mass media dissemination. HBO, as a pay cable network, has a certain freedom to show content that would not be appropriate for other outlets. Those outlets are expected to exercise discretion in choosing what to show and what not to show to a public audience that may include young children or the faint of heart. Categorically, I would place outlets under the “Mass Media” category, which should use discretion because of the broad nature of its audience, and what I will call the “HBO” category, which features an assumed user-network agreement that users have opted in to see questionable content.

There are three main categories of questionable content:

  • Excess profanity (i.e., not a simple slip-up in the heat of the moment);
  • Sexually explicit images; and
  • Graphic human disfigurement (whether the result of violence or accident).

Obviously, in Ware’s case, the third category comes into play. Though he will likely make a full recovery after about a year, as told by Rick Pitino to CBS reporters in the aftermath of the victory, the image of his broken leg certainly fell under that last category.

When all was said and done, CBS showed two quick replays in the immediate aftermath of the injury, as normally happens with even the worst injuries. But they halted immediately afterwards. ESPN has refused to show the play on either SportsCenter or their website.

Deadspin, on the other hand, has shown it, and that’s fine. But why does Deadspin get a pass on showing replays? Simple, really: the site’s tag line is “Sports news without access, favor, or discretion.” Highlight that last word for a second. The site broadly announces, and therefore warns, its audience from the onset that its content is not filtered. That puts it firmly in the “HBO” category mentioned above. Deadspin readers know what to expect from that site, and they opt into viewing it.

On the other hand, sites like ESPN, CBS, and the like are not known for emphasizing graphic content. They fall in the “Mass Media” category. It’s not part of their mission statement.

Here are examples of “Mass Media” outlets:

  • CBS
  • ESPN
  • FOX
  • and so forth.

Here are examples of “HBO” outlets:

  • HBO itself, of course
  • Deadspin (and other Gawker media properties, by extension)
  • The majority of blogs, as determined by individual blog owners. Blogs have greater freedom to choose which of these categories to fall in due to their likely smaller and niche audience.

As for Twitter, tweets are best handled as external links with extreme caution exercised. A user may opt in to following a Twitter account, but that does not suggest universal consent to anything put out by said account—especially if said account is widely recognized to fall in the “Mass Media” category.

To those who argue for the protection of freedom of speech, or against discretion in this category: if everybody was as skilled as you at screening content, making conscious choices, and remaining disaffected by even the most gruesome or explicit of imagery, we wouldn’t have to discuss this in the first place. But everybody isn’t that smart. You know where to find it if you want it; leave it there.

To those who suggest that images are necessary in describing such an injury, you’re not reading the right journalists.

The lesson here: Be aware of the nature of your media outlet before posting questionable content. Some images are not appropriate for certain outlets, but a skilled enough communicator can successfully disseminate the same information in both a respectable and effective manner with words alone.

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