By ERIC RUEB
Some people say you can’t always believe what you see on television.
In one case involving a local golfer, those people would be right.
On July 14, WPRI Channel 12 and its affiliate, WNAC Fox 64, showed highlights of North Kingstown resident and former Skippers’ golf star Samantha Morrell and her opponent Ali Prazak putting on the 18th hole at Laurel Lane Golf Club in West Kingston in the finals of the Ocean State Women’s Golf Association championship match in its nightly sportscast.
Problem was, what viewers saw never happened.
The footage, shot by reporter Sara Hogan and described putt-for-putt on air by WPRI sports director Eric Murphy, was staged, a serious breach of television journalism ethics.
“You have to be truthful to the viewers,” University of Rhode Island department of Journalism Professor and former WLNE Channel 6 reporter Barbara Meagher said. “When the viewers see this video of the golfers playing, you have to say ‘and after the tournament was over, they showed us some of their key [shots].’ You can’t make viewers believe that it was during the tournament.”
“No one realized it was fake,” Morrell said. “They said ‘I saw [the highlights] on the news and I’d say ‘I’ll tell you what really happened, because that isn’t what happened.’”
Murphy said in an e-mail after speaking with management, he and the station would have no further comments on the situation.
WPRI News Director Joe Abouzeid replied in an e-mail “The video that Sara Hogan was taking of the players was for a story that she is working on about the players that has not yet aired. It is not our policy to recreate or reenact “highlights”. It is, however, our policy to specifically and accurately describe and identify the video that we present. It appears in this case that although the video was not described as highlights, it should not have aired in this context.”
In the broadcast, Murphy described each putt as if it happened during the match and despite Abouzeid’s claim, never gave an indication what viewers saw was staged. Part of the footage was used in a feature on Morrell by Hogan that was on the station’s website last Thursday.
The match ended on the 16th hole at Laurel Lane. Morrell missed a birdie putt and watched as it slid 10-15 feet past the hole. Prazak, with a chance to win the hole and extend the match, missed her birdie effort. Morrell conceded the putt and needed to make hers to close out the match.
She drained the putt and celebrated her second straight OSWGA title with a fist pump.
Players, officials and fans were at or on their way back to the clubhouse when Hogan arrived from Potowomut Golf Club in East Greenwich. Murphy said Hogan was there covering the Rhode Island Men’s Amateur Golf Championship.
Hogan filmed the OSWGA award ceremony and when it finished, was overheard by this reporter asking Morrell and Prazak if the two could grab their putters and return to 18 to “create some television magic.”
According to the Radio, Television and Digital News Association’s code of ethics, professional journals should not “present images or sounds that are reenacted without informing the public.”
“It comes down to this was a reenactment and you didn’t inform that public,” Meagher said. “This comes down to the basic trust between the public and us; if we don’t let them know when something like this happens, little by little they’re going to lose their faith in us.”
Creating the “TV magic” was also uncomfortable for one of the highlight’s stars.
“It felt kind of weird. We didn’t know what do to,” Morrell said. “We tried to make it like the real thing, but I think we did a good job with our acting. I think we deserve some credit for it; that was really realistic.”
WPRI’s highlights from the OSWGA Championship can be found on their YouTube Channel, titled “RI women’s state amateur golf final.” The staged footage begins 10 seconds into the clip and ends at the 36-second mark.
Updated to include quotes from Samantha Morrell on the incident.