On big stories the tendency is to try and “advance the story” and find a new twist or something someone else missed. Sometimes there are perils, sometimes there are errors and sometimes career heads roll. As here with NBC:
NBC News has fired a producer who was involved in the production of a misleading segment about the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.
The person was fired on Thursday, according to two people with direct knowledge of the disciplinary action who declined to be identified discussing internal company matters. They also declined to name the fired producer. A spokeswoman for NBC News declined to comment.
The action came in the wake of an internal investigation by NBC News into the production of the segment, which strung together audio clips in such a way that made George Zimmerman’s shooting of Mr. Martin sound racially motivated. Ever since the Feb. 26 shooting, there has been a continuing debate about whether race was a factor in the incident.
The segment in question was shown on the “Today” show on March 27. It included audio of Mr. Zimmerman saying, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.”
But Mr. Zimmerman’s comments had been taken grossly out of context by NBC. On the phone with a 911 dispatcher, he actually said of Mr. Martin, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” Then the dispatcher asked, “O.K., and this guy — is he white, black or Hispanic?” Only then did Mr. Zimmerman say, “He looks black.”
The editing of the segment was initially noticed by NewsBusters, an arm of the Media Research Center, a conservative media monitoring group.
Two things about this:
1. As a former fulltime journalist, I have myself been interviewed several times and been shocked with how I’ve been misquoted, or footage was taken out of context. The worst example happened more than 20 years ago on a news video clip where the field reporter’s tape was taken totally out of context and the final narrative was filled with two major inaccuracies. This was a network feature on my other incarnation. The field producer spent 30 minutes interviewing me. He then wanted to tape me at a venue where I was doing my act. It was a restaurant with a small area for a comedy club. The restaurant owner was about to put on the lights when the producer told him to leave them how they were. They also said they’d use my name. The final piece didn’t use my name, and talked about an act “in a dimly lit room in a border town.” THEY asked for it to be dimly lit. And the city was actually 15 miles away from the border and not a border town. None of these accuracies mattered: the tape was edited in New York by the network in a way so it fit a narrative; the facts didn’t matter.
2. In this highly politicized world — where people are always on the attack to try and make a preconceived political point — it is not a “given” that the reporter and editor were rubbing their hands with glee, sounding like B-movie villains, discussing how they could take this piece of tape out of context. The sign of solid journalists and editors are if in the heat of a moment and a “hot” story they can stick to their training on the care and accuracy with which they package and deliver information they gather. Most likely this was a case of sloppy editing that made the story sound stronger for airing — which is not the same as trying to misedit to advance a perspective or cause.
Selecting how facts and tidbits of info are presented is not a small thing. On newspapers stories the placement of a fact or a key quote, the omission of part of a quote, etc. — all can influence the impression a story gives. And in this story — involving the death of a teen, contentions the shooter was defending himself, and allegations of racism – the stakes in how a story is perceived and whether the perception communicated to news consumers is accurate are very high.
But, no matter. Whether it is that or not, some on each side will say any explanation that doesn’t fit their viewpoint is a lie.
Papers and broadcast companies correct errors all the time but when there is a huge error on a high profile story (and news outlets make or break their reputations on how they cover major stories) that damages the company or suggests that an employee who made the error or lapse is to risky to have onboard, they part ways. Which sounds like which is what happened here.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.