When a television news organization accuses someone of almost killing a person, you’d think they’d do a careful study of the facts. Especially if the story is being touted in on-air promos.
But when KSTP-TV reporter Jennifer Griswold ambushed holistic medicine practitioner Susan Anderson in her Hudson, Wisconsin, home and asked her if she knew “that a woman almost died because of the advice you gave her,” journalistic caution became a casualty of sensational reporting. Or so a jury decided when they awarded Anderson $1 million in compensatory damages for the report that aired in 2009.
It began when Cheryl Blaha, a Hudson woman prone to depression and with a history of psychiatric problems, brought the story to KSTP. In 2007, Blaha, who was suffering post-partum depression, sought out holistic healer Susan Anderson. She saw Anderson about once a month for six months, until Anderson ended the sessions, believing she’d done all she could do for Blaha.
Blaha told KSTP that Anderson told her to stop taking her anxiety drug because it was hard on her kidneys. So she did, but said she didn’t inform her doctor that she was stopping the drug. Blaha said that began a downward spiral that ended in an attempt to kill herself.
There were a few problems with the story, though, that KSTP apparently didn’t verify. There was no proof that Blaha had tried to commit suicide, and her medical records showed that her doctor had known she was quitting the drug. Finally, there is the journalistic imperative to tell both sides of the story.
Susan Anderson was devastated by the promos, even before the story ran on the news. She turned to her friend, attorney Bill Tilton, and he arranged a meeting between her and a representative from KSTP. The meeting took place just hours before the story was due to run.
Tilton, according to City Pages, said he was stunned by this example of “ambush journalism at its most scurrilous.” At the meeting, he warned KSTP of the major factual errors in the story. After it ran, Tilton referred Anderson to defamation attorney Pat Tierney, with Collins Buckley, who took the case to trial.
Tierney says that beyond the journalistic errors, “what is even more disturbing is that they still will not admit the mistakes, and they argued to the jury that the report was truthful.”
KSTP’s attorney Paul Hannah, a media lawyer with Kelly and Hannah, sees it differently. “KSTP,” he told City Pages, “talked to people, talked to experts, talked to the participants, and came out with the best story they could.”