What KTVU-TV did right after its slip-up

It has been great sport all weekend for media critics to excoriate KTVU-TV in Oakland. There’s no denying KTVU made a big mistake. But when admitting to its mistakes, the station took an approach that other journalists should replicate.

Friday, KTVU aired the names of what it believed were pilots involved in the Asiana Airlines crash. The names were fake, offensive puns that slur Asians and insult victims.  KTVU did not say where the names originated but did say it confirmed the names with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB later apologized and said a summer intern had confirmed the names.

Today, KTVU News Director Lee Rosenthal (whom I’ve known for several years) told me the station cannot say more about the incident because Asiana Airlines says it plans to sue the station for harming its reputation. It’s worth noting that he could have sent me an email denying my interview request, or he could have had a third party call me. But he responded himself.

KTVU has never hidden from its mistake. It corrected the story quickly, on the same newscast where the mistake was made. The station corrected the story online, it apologized on subsequent newscasts, and station management issued apologies.

One of its evening newscast anchors, Frank Somerville, said on air:

“We made several mistakes when we received this information. First of all, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out. Then, during our phone call to the NTSB, where the person confirmed the spellings of the names, we never asked that person to give us their position within the agency. We heard this person verify the information without questioning who they were and then we rushed the names on to our noon newscast.”

News Director Rosenthal told the Asian American Journalists Association the apologies don’t fix the error: “It doesn’t make things right,” he said. “We can assure you that none of this was premeditated nor was there any malicious intent in any way.”

The station’s actions align with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which says journalists should “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” They also align with the Radio and Television Digital News Association’s Code of Ethics, which says journalists should:

  • “Respond to public concerns. Investigate complaints and correct errors promptly and with as much prominence as the original report.”
  • “Explain journalistic processes to the public, especially when practices spark questions or controversy.”

It seems to me that the station did what journalists should do when they make a mistake; they scramble to make it as right as they can. I think KTVU teaches journalists how to accept responsibility. It is not an excuse for making mistakes, and the station won’t get a second chance to make the same mistake.

Over the weekend, I read many social media and blog posts lamenting that the KTVU incident is a sign of the declining standards of journalism, especially local TV.

I think it’s better to shift the conversation and ask: What protocols could have prevented or mitigated mistakes like the one that happened at KTVU? The station suggested a few in its apology, and I’ve added a few more:

  • Sound out names before they go on the air and ask: Do they sound real?
  • Be transparent in reporting: How do you know what you know and who gave you the information?
  • More eyes on copy before it airs. We do not know who wrote the copy and who approved it because the station has not revealed this information. But a protocol that says more than one set of eyes sees all copy before it airs is a sound one.
  • Mandatory double-check on names. A colleague of mine who worked in print said it is normal for newspapers to have a mandatory double-check on all names, especially unconventional names and unusual words. I would love to know how often that protocol is followed these days. Does your newsroom do a search on names before using them? Does the same protocol apply to online stories and social media posts?
  • How would increased diversity or diversity training have increased the sensitivity to being tricked? A 2012 NABJ study found: “Out
 American.” It seems logical that having a more diverse newsroom raises your chances of catching racial and ethnic errors, as AAJA’s Paul Cheung and Bobby Caina Calvin pointed out in a Poynter.org story earlier today. It will only help, however, if everyone in the newsroom feels a responsibility to contribute to the editorial conversations.
  • When a newsroom makes a correction, especially on Twitter, it might be wise to repeat the correction for those who miss it. Newspapers often place corrections in the same place daily. But look at any TV site and see if you can find a corrections page where all corrections live. Poynter.org has such a page, and it is the one place where I don’t want my name or work posted, although it has been there from time to time over the years.

Smart newsroom leaders will use KTVU’s misfortune less as a chance to pile on and more as an opportunity to revisit the` value of promoting critical thinking in newsrooms.

One of my colleagues said this morning that this case shows the value of having “smart-asses” among us. We need to have experienced people around us who understand the kind of snark that would produce this kind of prank. More than that, we should promote the kind of thinking in newsrooms that questions everything, even when it comes from a usually reliable source.

Nothing here excuses what happened on KTVU’s newscast Friday. But it does recognize that the station tried hard to stand tall when it made a mistake. I respect that.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified KTVU as based in San Francisco rather than Oakland.

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  • Haggy

    Your suggestion that they were responsible for the death of John F Kennedy is equally unfounded. And I have the same right to say what you suggested as you do to say what I suggested. Or you can go by what I wrote instead.

    Of course this was a major gaffe. Of course it’s not on par with mispronouncing somebody’s name. And it has nothing to do with whether they run that slogan or not. Personally I think it’s best that they don’t. I was talking about the accuracy of the statistic and nothing else. If you want to argue about things I didn’t say, you can do so. But don’t think you can base an argument on it.

  • http://www.jeffnolan.com jnolan

    I repeat, the optics on this error were so bad that KTVU did indeed stop running the promo. Your suggestion that this error was equivalent to a spelling mistake in a crawler or mispronounced name is beyond the pale. You are deflecting to a tangential issue rather than addressing the core one, which is how did so many people get it so wrong?

    They ran wall to wall promos touting 100% accuracy, they got something badly wrong and discredited their reputation in the process (the legal peril seems like a stretch), and stopped running the promos. Full stop. Whether or not a big mistake affects the stats is beside the point, they simply could not make the claim in the face of such an embarrassing misfire.

  • Haggy

    Rounding doesn’t distort facts, but sometimes the lack of it does. There’s a basic concept of significant digits. When you use more decimal places than the degree of accuracy, then the rest of the digits are just noise. The numbers I gave were illustrative but you took them out of the context of decades of programming, not two days of it. Even the “one hour” comment refers to the industry standard notions of a one hour show or a half hour show. If I referred to it as a 45 minute broadcast, that would be even more misleading even if technically accurate.

    Any news station, given enough time, will have some errors such as a missing letter on the crawler at the bottom of the screen or a slight mispronunciation of a name in a “man on the street” interview. But normal accepted rules of rounding hold that when you list something to the nearest whole number, something a few decimal places out doesn’t count.

    That was precisely the problem with the Bush/Gore election. The difference in vote count was smaller than the margin of error, and the raw count simply didn’t reflect anything. Had it been stated to the nearest several thousand votes, it would have been more accurate and an exact tie.

    It’s like the joke about the museum tour guide who tells a group that the dinosaur bones are 200 million years 14 months and six days old. When asked how he got such a precise number, he said that they were 200 million years old when he first took the job.

    Saying 0% errors is not the same as saying no errors or error free, except in cases where the government says so and makes it the law. And they have done that in some cases.

  • http://www.jeffnolan.com jnolan

    gee I ran out of fingers and toes so it was hard to follow along but one thing I do know about math, and indeed love, is that it is binary. You are either 100% or you are not 100%, rounding distorts this fact but does not make it less true.

    But the point really is not, as you well know, about being 100% but rather having such an egregious error, one which garnered international attention, lay absurdity to the claim. KTVU has indeed ceased running the self-congratulatory promo spots since the monumental egg-on-face broadcast. This is an example of being hoisted up by one’s own petard, the station proclaimed loudly that they were first and 100% accurate and when their rush to be first overwhelmed their journalistic integrity, yes butt of jokes and reputation rebuilding ensues.

    PS- an hour long broadcast is not an hours worth of content, more like 40 minutes and then there is banter, teasers, cut to weather and traffic, and well the amount of actual content they run is pretty thin.

  • Haggy

    They could change the 100% figure, but to what? Perhaps you aren’t any good at math. So let me explain it to you. They run dozens of stories a day, and have several newscasts per day. They have an hour long evening newscast. It doesn’t take them long to run 100 stories. At that point, they’d be at 99%. After another hundred, they’d be back at 100% (rounded.) They did something incredibly stupid, but nobody is saying “oops they did it again.”

  • redmerlot

    Nonsense. KTVU “apologized” and covered their rear ends by blaming the NTSB for confirming the names.

    No, I’m sorry. KTVU has not handled this acceptably at all. The NTSB intern either made a mistake or was just having fun with them. But that’s not nearly as bad as PLACING the names into the story in the first place. Somebody at KTVU did that on purpose. Where’s the accountability?

  • sanjuro

    “KTVU has never hidden from its mistake.”

    Besides the obligatory apologies, which was unclear (Initially, it sounded like the NTSB intern had originated the names) and hardly contrite, I have heard nothing about what exactly happened.

    Where did these names originate from?

    Who wrote this story, and confirmed the facts?

    And who gave final approval to publish this story?

    The effects of this story has rippled far into the Asian community and the Bay Area news watchers. And I believe KTVU, by the fact that Tori Campbell is still on the air, is glad to sweep this under the rug.

  • rwllc

    KTVU and other stations would HOUND a public official for a similar mistake, relentlessly. They would question the judgement and ethical standards of public figures who, like we all do, “make mistakes…”. Relentlessly. And giggle as the poor soul who decided to run for public office and wasn’t perfect that day. Or had their own stupid, human moment.

    The station deserves all the criticism leveled at it. Trying to blame the NTSB was outrageous. How many people read the names, typed them into the scrip and screen graphic? The station has not come clean about where these names came from.

    Saying the station followed the “code”…and did the right thing? REALLY.

    Stupidity. Arrogance. Thoughtlessness. Crass drive to “break news” of a terrible tragedy (had they reported the correct names no doubt the news team would be chest thumping over how good they are….).

    And so who gets fired? An unpaid intern, whom the NTSB probably put on the press desk (vacation coverage?) with no guidance.

    Did the right thing? Lets see them say that about others who make public mistakes, and perhaps help reduce the corrosion of our civic process.

  • Mark

    KTVU still has not explained who created the names and why KTVU felt the need to report the pilot names in the first place.

  • mike from san francisco

    apologies are worthless. they need to donate a large sum of money to the families affected by the crash.

  • http://www.jeffnolan.com jnolan

    KTVU apologized, as they should. I am left to wonder how the chain of events that unfolded was allowed to in a station that is running non-stop promo spots highlighting their “first…” coverage and “100% accurate reporting”. The latter is obviously not the case, let’s hope KTVU stops running those particular promo spots.

    Someone had the names, another person wrote the story and either confirmed the names or had someone else do it, another person transcribed the story to the teleprompter, another person developed the graphic, a producer organized the on air coverage, and Tori Campbell read the names even after visibly flinching after the second name. That is a lot of people and KTVU is not explaining how all these smart people in the newsroom missed what thousands of people saw plainly on their television at the moment it aired and then thanks to youtube millions of times after that.

    The best case is that a lot of smart people were massively daft while this was unfolding, the worst case is that KTVU’s motivation to be first to report overwhelmed good journalism processes.

  • Eliades Pastor

    Um no what this proves is the anchor driven newscasts is the weak link. News gatherers in the field bring back raw material which is shaped by inflated suits who have lost their street smarts. Like trained monkeys they just read off the teleprompter. The chain is broken here folks. Talented people have opted or been eliminated out of the process.
    TV is the new radio. Few pictures but plenty non-stop babbling.

  • http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/ Bob Collins

    I can’t think of a more offensive defense of the indefensible, repleat with an excoriation of journalists who understand the depth of mistakes and a complete ignorance of the fact the NTSB was a lousy place to turn for “confirmation,” reflecting a more serious problem in the KTVU newsroom. Maybe Poynter should consider someone assessing the situation with someone who isn’t a pal of someone involved, because Al really doesn’t get the depth of the incompetencet here. http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2013/07/how-a-tv-stations-amateur-reporting-broadcast-racist-joke/

  • BVS

    I only ask “how” this incident could have been broadcast due to the fact that several people, including an experienced reporter, failed to see anything wrong???

    A collection of individual minds had to:
    * Maliciously provide the false information
    * See/hear the false info
    * Contact a third party for verification
    * Manually type and format it VISUALLY to fit the screen
    * And finally someone to READ and SPEAK the names on the air…

    This also comes just months after they rushed a *BREAKING NEWS* explosion report due to a hacked twitter feed.

  • ProducerMatthew

    “KTVU has never hidden from its mistake. It corrected the story quickly, on the same newscast where the mistake was made. The station corrected the story online, it apologized on subsequent newscasts, and station management issued apologies.”

    KTVU issued its first apology shortly before 2 p.m. Pacific Time. In the apology, the station’s general manager said the station quickly corrected the story and apologized online and on social media. In fact, the station waited nearly two hours to even address the story online, and even though the station claimed it had quickly addressed the issue on social media, it would be FOUR hours since the incident before the station made mention of it on Twitter and Facebook.

    For unknown reasons, the station pulled its preliminary apology from the Internet and re-posted it two hours later. They then replaced the apology with a direct quote from their station’s general manager — containing the error noted above — with copy read from the teleprompter.

    The station boasted about “100% accurate” coverage of the plane crash three days after it happened, only to be duped by a set of phony names three days later. It was slow to admit fault even after it corrected the story — KTVU initially blamed an “official” with the NTSB in Washington (who later turned out to be a summer intern) for confirming the names. It was only after the NTSB’s statement later that night did KTVU accept full blame for the blunder.

    Mr. Tompkins would have you believe, perhaps because of his acquaintanceship with KTVU’s news director (who has only been in his position at the station for less than four months), that KTVU did many things right after the error made it to air. In fact, KTVU only issued a response after the gaffe went viral. Had it not been for the reaction of the Internet, KTVU’s apology likely would have extended to a quick correction before anchor Tori Campbell signed off on the noon broadcast.

    And even when it tried to make things right, KTVU got things wrong.

  • dw

    KTVU has made mistakes of this kind before:


  • rbruce20

    What will KTVU or another TV station do to correct their error when they broadcast a name given to them by another unchecked unnamed “intern” that results in bad things happening?


    Mixed emotions. I laughed. Loudly. I feel a little guilty about that.

    I’ve been around TV newsrooms for decades. As an engineer, I’ve had the opportunity to watch from the sidelines, and overwhelmingly, I’ve witnessed a group of smart, dedicated pros who work long hours, often in uncomfortable, if not dangerous surroundings. They do it for less money than people think, and they love their jobs.

    I’ve seen the toll it takes on these people who all to often find themselves thrust into the middle of tragic events. Events like this one. Inside-the-room humor, sometimes sophomoric, I found to be kind of a shield against the horrific nature of the event. I suspect it here. Maybe things just got out of hand and made it to air. I actually hope that is the case here, because if the writer, producer, graphics, and director failed to catch this, I think the KTVU newsroom, and perhaps many more newsrooms, are in real trouble. Too much automation, overworked, undertrained, in some sort of ‘reporter trauma’ yet to be diagnosed?

    The ‘right-now’, and ‘forever’ nature of the internet cuts both ways on this one. The video will be a search-engine hit for a long time, and will distract from the service KTVU does for their community every day.

    I feel bad for KTVU, for the victims of the crash, and for the viewers. But, at the end of the day, I think everyone realizes this isn’t such a horrific thing that requires a lawsuit. Sounds to me like the airline is just using this to try to downplay their rather difficult situation.

  • djack10

    One additional thing to consider: someone had to make the graphic that went with the names, That means at least one other individual saw the names. I think what is more important than anything else, is for people to pay attention and slow down. Really understand what you are doing and not go through the motions. I see mistakes of my co-workers all the time because they are not applying simple, common sense analysis to what they do. It doesn’t require training. Just using your brain.

  • GlarryB

    I can fully concur with your assessment of the way the station handled their situation.

    However, I cannot agree this humorous email that was taken incorrectly as fact was either “offensive puns that slur Asians” nor did they “insult victims”. It was purely gutter humor that most likely would have eventually been used on the Saturday Night Live News segment. They’ve used similar jokes in the past.