Television News and Accountability

Friend of the room David Carr has an interesting piece on why news shows so rarely correct themselves on air, when they get something wrong. The launching point is NBC's really weird refusal to say on air, what they've admitted in print -- that they mangled George Zimmerman's quote in such a way that changed it's meaning:


Nobody likes to eat crow in plain sight, especially in front of millions of viewers, but there are other imperatives at work. Lowell Bergman, who works for PBS and has done work for The New York Times, spent many years at ABC and then at "60 Minutes." 

He said that part of the problem with corrective reporting on TV is that it pulls back the blankets on the apparatus. The omniscient anchor, the dashing correspondent -- most of them are just the spigot for a news product manufactured by many others. "Television is an industrial process," Mr. Bergman said, pointing to the fact that there are many hands on each story even as only one tells it. "It is built on a fiction, and they don't want to get into the business of deconstructing how news comes together." 

 Correcting a broadcast news report presents other challenges. Any correction would have to come out of the mouths of personalities whom networks lavishly promote as trusted sources of information. At newspapers like this one, corrections are usually not placed in highly visible news space, but they are consistent in where they appear, and readers can go there or not as they wish. 

 On television, everything is equal. There is no, "By the way, ..." -- there are only precious seconds of airtime. It makes for a very high bar when it comes to setting the record straight.
Part of this comes out of an old sense that the power of news media emanates from its unfailing accuracy. But given that no one ever is unfailingly accurate, and given that we now exist in a world where numerous sites are dedicated to pointing this out, it may well be smart to emphasize other values.

It's obviously really important for news media to be accurate -- but I would argue that it's equally important to be honest. That's the real argument for admitting to a mistake on air -- the message is "We are honest." The fear is that you're also telling your viewers "We are capable of being wrong." But increasingly, they already know that. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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