Jacobs' visibility triggers questions of perception

Twinkle, twinkle, TV star. Has your presence gone too far?

When a newscaster reasonably removed from the news she reports shifts to a newsmaker with star billing, the media nursery rhyme applies.

KVBC-TV, Channel 3 entertainment correspondent Alicia Jacobs has leapt from mere reporter to marquee attraction recently:

In February, she toted a puppy to Danny Gans' Encore opening, a controversy climaxing when Bonnie Hunt dissed her on her daytime show. Then the Holly Madison Hoo-Ha when the model, in a moment of couture cattiness, intimated that Jacobs' fashion sense had short-circuited. Then L'Affair Prejean, in which, after Carrie Prejean-aka-Miss California's gay marriage comments sent the media into orbit, Jacobs, a pageant judge, blogged her personal views, repeated on CNN, "Today," "Access Hollywood" and "Extra." Finally, her closeness to Gans drew her into the story of his tragic death as family friend and source speculating on his health.

"It's fair to look at these as an aggregate, and I would look at the entire newsroom and say, 'What's going on here, that the policy is so unclear?' " says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a respected journalism think tank. "Once you've got two or three of those popping up, you've got to wonder who is managing this newsroom and how are they communicating with the staff about what are acceptable boundaries."

"Who" is news director Deborah Clayton. "An entertainment reporter is a different animal than news, especially in the entertainment capital," Clayton counters, speaking for a station probably vibrating with excitement over the publicity spillover. "With the (Prejean) story, she was giving her opinion, not News-3 opinions. In regard to Danny Gans, she's someone you'd seek out ... and ask her opinion as a friend."

Clayton's kinda correct: Show-biz beat reporters are afforded leeway as surrogates for viewers getting a vicarious buzz off the beautiful/booty-full people -- especially covering slam-glam Vegas action. Intimacy a bit beyond journalistic detachment develops.

"It would be odd if I didn't become part of some stories because of how well-immersed I am in this community," Jacobs says. "After 15 years, if I didn't have these relationships, I'd be doing my job wrong. People are comfortable with how I cover stories because they know I have more knowledge on the person I'm reporting on than the average reporter."

But a confluence of curious timing -- four incidents over three months -- and her debatable responses jacked up Jacobs' profile beyond well-informed to too involved. That strains the "acceptable boundaries" McBride describes that confine reporters to conduits of news, rather than the cause, to safeguard credibility, a cornerstone of the craft whether applied to White House torture memos or red-carpet implant sightings. (Frequent bold-face mentions in Norm Clarke's R-J column magnified her profile, though there'd be little Jacobs chatter to matter had she not been so easily caught in his roving spotlight.)

Actions here aren't unethical, but inadvisable.

In the doggie drama, despite Jacobs' admirable advocacy for animals, a reporter attracting attention that way at a public event was a misstep. Responding in her blog to the Holly hullabaloo, while understandably tempting, was another. Reporters endure -- and ignore -- insults daily. During her pageant PR tour, comments on Prejean and gay marriage that echoed across the national news-scape probably offended some News-3 viewers in a display of opinion more appropriate to a talk-show host than a news reporter.

That also taints any future Prejean coverage by Jacobs, even if she asserts neutrality. Bias-in-reverse issues do likewise with Gans stories.

"Don't I have a chance to do that story before I'm judged?" Jacobs asks about any post-autopsy follow-ups. "Don't I deserve that opportunity?"

Absolutely. But that misses the point. This isn't necessarily about the reality of the coverage by the end, but the skepticism viewers could bring going in.

Reporters cultivate connections with sources that require a casual cordiality, but there's a difference between professional relationships and personal friendships, especially one as strongly and publicly evident as Jacobs and Gans. Many news outlets discourage it not because it's a guarantee of biased coverage, but because it creates an appearance of potential bias -- viewers/readers wondering if a reporter-friend would conceal unflattering or damaging information. What a shame to sow doubts over reporting that turns out perfectly balanced.

"I've proven I have ethics, that I'm a solid reporter and have never misled viewers," Jacobs says. "And I have integrity, which is everything."

Jacobs' journalistic ethics and integrity are not questioned here. Her judgment is.

Perhaps it's prudent for this TV star not to twinkle, twinkle quite so bright.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.