News Makes or Breaks Reputations

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Shortly after he arrived at WFIE-TV, the NBC affiliate in Evansville, Ind., News Director Bob Freeman experienced a major newsroom meltdown. A couple of minutes before 6 p.m. on a hot June day in 1993, Mr. Freeman and a handful of staffers gathered in his office to watch the four local newscasts.
Suddenly, three of the screens erupted with live shots of heavily armed federal agents wielding machine guns as they prepared to raid a local business whose owner was suspected of stockpiling weapons.
It was a huge local story-and WFIE missed it.
“I was in absolute shock,” Mr. Freeman recalled. “All of our competitors, all of them, were leading with this story, and we didn’t have squat. Nothing.”
It turns out that someone in the newsroom had failed to pass along a tip phoned in earlier in the day. A simple mistake begot an embarrassing fiasco.
It has been said that a newsroom can do the best job on the face of the planet for 364 days a year, but the only thing the public will remember is the one day it screws it up.
Both local and network newsrooms have suffered their share of abashedly public malfunctions of late. In March, ABC News found itself apologizing to affiliates for dropping the ball when, with the start of the war in Iraq, the network alerted affiliates that it would remain in continuous coverage and usurp the time allotted for their late local newscasts.
At WCJB-TV, Gainesville, Fla., News Director Adam Henning sent his evening anchor team home early. Imagine his surprise when, at 11 p.m. (ET), ABC anchor Peter Jennings tossed the coverage back to the local stations. Mr. Henning’s newsroom scrambled, but unequipped to handle the surprise attack from its own network, it had little prepared.
That same night, WTVG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Toledo, Ohio, went to silent video for 20 minutes. WTVC-TV in Chattanooga, Tenn., quickly threw up a tape of its early newscast-the one that reported the war was imminent.
In early February, as shards of the space shuttle Columbia were falling from the sky following the explosion, the newsroom at WJBK-TV, the Fox affiliate in Detroit, went to feature story after feature story, unaware of the disaster for several minutes. At one point, anchor Charles Pugh remarked on-air that the unusual silence of the NASA feed was “like a dead zone for cellphones.”
WJBK News Director Dana McDaniel blamed the failure on inexperience and short staffing. “We had a brand-new producer,” Ms. McDaniel told the Detroit News.
Picking Up the Pieces
While occasional lapses can happen to anybody, how does a news shop regain its composure and re-establish credibility with its audience following a big-time blunder?
“Some stations I know openly blamed ABC and tried to pass the buck,” Mr. Henning said. “We told our audience that based on the information we had we made a bad decision. We tried to be honest rather than spin the story in our favor.”
WCJB issued a statement of apology on its Web site. General Manager Carolyn Barrett explained and apologized on the air.
“We answered all phone calls and e-mail personally to address viewer concerns,” Mr. Henning said. By the time it was done, nearly all viewers thanked the station for its honesty and said they would continue to watch.
ABC apologized as well. In a letter to affiliates, Alex Wallau, president, ABC Television, and David Westin, president, ABC News, wrote, “We deeply regret that we let you down last night. We are committed to earn back your trust.” Lou Prato, a longtime news director and former treasurer of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, believes that laying it all on the table is the appropriate response. “You have to be upfront with people, because the audience is smarter than we give them credit for,” said Mr. Prato, who now heads the All Sports Museum at Pennsylvania State University.
Mr. Prato recalled an embarrassing incident while he was at WWJ-TV (now WJBK) in Detroit in the early 1970s. Then an NBC affiliate, WWJ was set to carry a made-for-TV movie based on the World War II-era execution of accused deserter Pvt. Eddie Slovik.
Mr. Prato assigned a reporter to track down Mr. Slovik’s widow, who lived in Detroit. The reporter later radioed in that he had completed the assignment, and WWJ began promoting that it would have an “exclusive interview” with the woman immediately following the movie.
“And we come out of the program into the 11 o’clock news, and we tell people the whole newscast about this exclusive we’ve got,” Mr. Prato recalled. By the time the segment rolled around at 11:25, viewers saw the reporter knock on a door, an elderly woman emerge and say bluntly, “I don’t have anything to say. I really don’t want to talk.” That was the extent of Mr. Prato’s “exclusive.”
“Now that was embarrassing,” he said.
News managers should be careful how they handle a snafu internally, advised news consultant Valerie Hyman, former director of the broadcast program at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
In the fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants world of breaking news, mistakes are bound to happen. And there are lessons that news managers can learn. It sounds simple enough, but the No. 1 rule is pretty straightforward: Be prepared for anything.
“You have to produce the newscast, even if you think it might not get on the air,” Mr. Freeman said.
Mr. Henning says he learned the hard way to keep a crew on hand, no matter what the network says.
“The first responsibility is to cover the community in which you live, and if you are not prepared to do that, then you have failed in your job, and I failed that night,” he said.
“Every once in a while, you’re going to get scooped,” Mr. Freeman rationalized. “The real key is how well you recover.”
Owning up to mistakes and hustling to regain newsroom momentum are, however, no substitute for dependable, daily excellence, Mr. Prato cautioned.
“If you screw up too many times,” he said, “your audience is going to stop believing you.”