BBC’s Edit of Obama’s Inauguration Speech Raises Important Ethical Questions

The BBC’s Newsnight show recently opened with what seemed like a single soundbite from President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. As it turns out, though, the BBC used three different parts of the inauguration speech and edited them together to create the soundbite. In listening to the audio, it’s not clear that it had been edited.

After seeing the segment, the blog “Harmless Sky” raised questions about how the BBC opened its show. The subject got picked up by a watchdog Web site called “Stinky Journalism,” which contacted me for comments. This is a case that raises important ethical questions for radio and TV stations and online news sites.

Here is a transcript of the show open:

“We will restore science to its rightful place, roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”

Did you miss that opening quote when you listened to the new president’s speech? You did not. Obama never said it.

You can watch the video of the program here. It’s probably a good idea to go ahead and take a look at the show open so you can fully appreciate the controversy and the questions that flow from it.

Let’s go to the official transcript of the president’s speech to see what he actually said. I will highlight the parts of the paragraph the BBC used.

Paragraph 13 in this version of the speech:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our economy calls for action, bold and swift. And we will act, not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth.  We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Paragraph 20 of the speech:

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we’ll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

What sounded like a single soundbite, a sentence from Obama’s first speech in office, was in fact the product of fancy editing.
It was three cuts from two paragraphs in separate parts of the speech. The soundbite might have made it seem that the new president was making a forceful statement about global warming and energy policy.  But in context, you would realize that in the speech, the line about science was not linked at all to global warming. The line about global warming was in a paragraph aimed at building global peace. These were sentence fragments — not forceful statements. 
I asked the BBC’s communications manager, Karen Rosine, about the way the show open was edited. She said, by e-mail:

“This was one part of a 50-minute programme exploring the start of the Obama presidency from various angles. We edited sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to science as a way to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the president was saying. The piece then went on to explore the challenges facing the president in this area.”

If you agree that the BBC signposted the edits by using audio fades, then there is no issue here, but I do not believe most viewers would detect those edits.

The BBC has defined and published its editorial guidelines, which are posted on its Web site.

One line from the BBC’s guidelines may speak most directly to the conflict at hand: “We strive to be accurate and establish the truth of what has happened.”

The truth in this case was warped, though. Obama did not say what the BBC’s soundbite might lead you to believe he said. You could argue that the BBC’s version was accurate, but not true. He did say those words, but he did not say them in the order that the BBC used them, and they were not in context.

When “Stinky Journalism” Web Site Director Rhonda Roland Shearer contacted the BBC about the edits, she passed along this note that she says she got from Peter Rippon, editor of the Newsnight program:

We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to science. It was designed to give people an impression or montage of what was said about science. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the president was saying. It is routine for broadcasters to edit speeches. The issue is whether in doing that you are unfair to the person giving the speech. There is nothing I need to correct. In fact, I am baffled that anyone would think we should.

Rippon also posted a response on the BBC’s blog saying essentially the same thing. The main question left to the listener/viewer is: “Was it obvious that the soundbite was edited together?” 

Here are some ethical guidelines I have to offer:

  • Editing is a part of journalism. But the editing should not alter the essential truth that you are covering. Edited soundbites should still maintain the context in which they were spoken.
  • Be especially judicious when editing a head of state. What the president says can carry global implications. Stock markets react instantly to presidential speeches. The inaugural address is a historic speech that should not be tampered with. You may consider similar guidelines for official speeches at many government levels. This is not to say you cannot edit those speeches, but make the edits obvious.
  • Editing for clarity (equalizing sound) is similar to toning photographs for clarity. Clarification is an attempt to render the sound more like it was in real life. 
  • Do not alter. Slowing down or speeding up sound changes the truth. Any changes in speed should be obvious to the listener.
  • Do not add. Don’t add additional sound effects that did not occur while you were covering the story unless it is obvious to the viewer/listener that you have added it. 
  • Be especially careful not to add music to a news story if the music sets an editorial tone.
  • Disclose your methods. The BBC could have shown Obama “face up” on screen so you could have seen dissolves in the video where the soundbites were being edited. We would have known, then, that it was an edited soundbite. Offer raw versions of interviews online and invite the public’s feedback about whether you edited the story fairly.

For more tips, see these ethical editing guidelines that Poynter colleague Bob Steele and I put together for the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s ethics project.

I often talk to newsrooms and seminar groups about ethical audio and video editing. Newspaper newsrooms that are now producing multimedia pieces for online are confronting the issues that broadcasters have faced for decades.

I recommend listening to a very good “On the Media” piece in which reporter John Solomon pulls back the curtain on NPR’s use of audio editing to clean up and shorten interviews.

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