What KTVU-TV did right after its slip-up

July 15, 2013
Category: Newsletters

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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