NBC’s failure to correct Zimmerman audio on-air highlights lack of TV news corrections
David Carr of The New York Times does an important bit of follow-up in his latest Media Equation column.
Carr asks why, after launching an internal investigation, firing the offending party and issuing a statement of apology over a misleadingly edited clip of George Zimmerman, NBC News didn't also offer an on-air correction.
The mangled clip ended up making Zimmerman's 911 call sound far more race-obsessed than it was. It aired on the popular "Today" show, bringing the deceptive clip to a wide audience. (NBC's investigation concluded the edit was done by accident, not out of malice.)
Carr's question is valid.
Even though NBC acted quickly to investigate how the clip was changed and discipline the person responsible, it left out one important action: Issuing an on-air correction on the "Today" show, telling viewers what happened, why, and apologizing for it in the same venue where the error was given such a public airing.
Carr gets NBC News president Steve Capus on the phone, ready to, as he writes, "do battle over the lack of on-air remediation."
But Capus agrees they should have done an on-air correction. Good. Why didn't they?
“The reality is that we didn’t try to hide from it,” he told Carr. “We did an awful lot of work after it happened. We did an exhaustive investigation, I did interviews with a lot of publications to get the message out, but we probably should have done it on our own air.”
Carr adds an additional explanation:
Part of the reason it didn’t occur to them is that television news almost never corrects itself on air when it gets called out. It just isn’t generally done, unless it’s needed to make a lawsuit go away.
Lack of broadcast corrections
Though newspapers, magazines and websites get a lot of negative attention for their corrections and mistakes, the truth is they publish them far more frequently, and willingly, than broadcast news organizations.
TV news programs rarely issue on-air corrections. It's just not a part of their tradition. As Carr notes, it often takes a lawsuit, or at least the threat of a lawsuit, to get one on the air.
There haven't to my knowledge been any studies about TV news corrections, but TV news people have publicly noted the difference between their practices and those of print media.
NBC acknowledged this reality back in 2003 when an American Journalism Review article interviewed David McCormick, then the NBC News executive producer for broadcast standards:
McCormick acknowledges that the electronic media could do a better job of addressing the smaller, "less material" mistakes that newspapers ordinarily put in a correction box.
That same piece quoted an ombudsman for a local TV station on why TV news outlets air so few corrections.
"Television is much more fleeting," he says. "Someone may hear or see a mistake, but then the story is over and they're on to something else. A newspaper is read and reread. There is more of a sense of permanence."
Not exactly a satisfying response -- and nine years later it's not entirely valid in today's media world.
My anecdotal opinion is we're seeing more on-air corrections than before, particularly on cable news programs. This is because of an overall increase in scrutiny of the press, including the fact that many media monitoring groups deploy an army of DVRs to collect and publicize any gaffes or incorrect statements.
TV mistakes aren't as ephemeral as they used to be. People get named and shamed for on-air errors more than ever before. Clips of anchors or hosts making mistakes are also now easily shared and embedded, bringing a viral aspect to on-air errors.
All of that makes it strange that NBC failed to include an on-air correction as part of its reaction to such a horribly deceptive and inaccurate bit of editing on a massive news story.
It's also strange because corrections are not foreign to NBC News.
"NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" has distinguished itself by doing a better job handling corrections than the other network newscasts. "Nightly News" has for years placed corrections on the MSNBC.com corrections page, and it has also been issuing corrections on its blog. See here and here, for example.
CNBC also has a dedicated online corrections page.
As far as I know, the only other U.S. broadcast outlet with a dedicated and regularly updated corrections page is ESPN (for whom Poynter currently serves as an ombud). Yet its sister network, ABC, doesn't do the same for its news division.
As for on-air corrections, here's a transcript of Williams correcting the attribution of a quote (watch the video here):
We want to set the record straight here tonight, last night we said that the head of Phillip Morris was quoted as saying cigarettes are not that hard to quit. While he conceded they are harmful and addictive. All of that is correct, he said that. The comment was made by the CEO of Phillip Morris international, not the American Phillip Morris. The problem is, we inadvertently showed the logo of the company Phillip Morris, U.S.A. which we need to point out is a separate company from Phillip Morris international.
Online but not on air
This brings me to one relevant item that isn't mentioned in Carr's column. There was, in fact, an online correction published for the "Today" Zimmerman report, and for a related online piece by MSNBC.com and NBC News. Both corrections are on the MSNBC.com corrections page (where you can find other "Today" corrections):
The TODAY show broadcast truncated a portion of George Zimmerman’s conversation with a police dispatcher, and that truncated interview appeared on TODAY.com and msnbc.com. The video was removed from the site on March 30, as NBC News launched an internal investigation. On April 3, NBC News issued this statement: “During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers.”
A March 21 story about the Trayvon Martin shooting in Sanford, Fla., initially truncated a transcription of George Zimmerman's conversation with a police dispatcher. The truncated quote made it seem that Zimmerman, acting as a neighborhood watch, brought up the race of the Miami teenager he was following in his neighborhood. Martin was later shot during a confrontation with Zimmerman. During the conversation, the police dispatcher asked Zimmerman specifically about the teen’s race and he answered.
Someone was given the direction to draft an online correction. These online corrections are actually quite frequent for the show. They appear to have a process for them.
But the order was never given to do one on air. Do they not have a procedure in place for escalating an online correction so it's also broadcast on air? There seems to be one at "Nightly News," so why not at "Today"?
Here's how Capus characterized it for Carr:
Mr. Capus said that they were so busy cleaning up the mess “inside our own halls,” that they neglected to loop in the audience. In that sense, the process was probably too “self-reflective,” he added.
They did loop in the audience with an online correction. Why did it end there?
You'd hope the news staff at "Today" would have recognized how important it is for their credibility and relationship with the audience to acknowledge the mistake on air, explain the measures taken by NBC as a result, and do so in a way that heightens the chance of this material finding the same audience that heard that damning and distorted clip.
As the leader of the newsroom and the point person on this issue and investigation, Capus should have ordered an on-air correction. Even better, leaders at "Today" should have been able to draw upon a correction policy that dictated the need for an on-air correction.
Neither scenario happened, so no correction.
Credit to Capus for being frank with Carr.
But I didn't see anything in the column that suggests "Today" will issue a correction this week.