Errors on Air  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2003

Errors on Air   

If newspapers and magazines are expected to correct mistakes, what about television?

By John D. Solomon
John D. Solomon is a New York-based journalist.     


In the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, journalists have focused attention on the error reduction and corrections efforts of the New York Times and other newspapers. This comes on the heels of a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll that found only 36 percent of the public thinks that the media usually "get the facts straight." Yet, there has been little or no discussion about how the electronic side of the business handles its mistakes.

Is it that they just make fewer goofs than their print competitors? Sort of, says Paul Giacobbe, ombudsman for WJAR-TV in Providence, Rhode Island, as most radio and television news operations have a smaller newshole.

Giacobbe says a more important reason why the electronic media have escaped similar scrutiny is the different way in which the public consumes the product. "Television is much more fleeting," he says. "Someone may hear or see a mistake, but then the story is over and they're on to something else. A newspaper is read and reread. There is more of a sense of permanence."

Giacobbe, one of the rare ombudsmen in television, also notes that most electronic media outlets are less aggressive about soliciting corrections from viewers and listeners, and the public is less likely to report miscues to them. Giacobbe says he's only occasionally asked by viewers to make a substantive correction.

That's the experience among network news operations as well. David McCormick, NBC News' executive producer for broadcast standards, says that requests for corrections are "few and far between." In fact, the last correction that NBC ran in response to a viewer complaint was more than a year ago, McCormick said in July.

Giacobbe and McCormick both say serious mistakes are corrected in a timely manner and during the same time period in which the error occurred. McCormick acknowledges that the electronic media could do a better job of addressing the smaller, "less material" mistakes that newspapers ordinarily put in a correction box and that surveys indicate contribute to the erosion of the media's credibility with the public. One idea worth considering, he says, is adding a corrections area to the news organization's Web site, as National Public Radio has done.

Forest Carr, news director at WFLA-TV in Tampa, says that electronic media should be willing to dedicate some of their airtime to corrections and other viewer issues. Carr established a once-a-week "Citizens' Voice" segment in which public concerns about coverage are raised. He argues that doing so not only improves the media's image with the public, it also provides a strategic competitive advantage. But he is not optimistic that most electronic media outlets will follow his lead. "Clearly, the world has not been beating a path to follow us."

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