What 60 Minutes can learn from Inside Edition

Media organizations need to own their mistakes. Here's how they can do better

The most controversial media error in recent months came in a 60 Minutes report by Lara Logan about the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, which ran for more than 15 minutes on Oct. 27. Logan’s story featured claims by a security officer that were later shown to contradict his statement to the FBI. After the officer’s claims came under increasing scrutiny, Logan apologized for her error on CBS This Morning on Nov. 8 and acknowledged it had been a mistake to include the officer’s account in a brief segment at the end of 60 Minutes on Nov. 10.

Here is a brief overview of the controversy as it stood two weeks ago for those who didn’t follow it closely:

What hasn’t yet been widely appreciated, however, is the way that CBS and 60 Minutes have compounded the original mistake by scrubbing their digital files of the retracted segment. A press release issued yesterday by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) called the news organization’s handling of the error “a case study in how not to correct an inaccurate report in the digital age.” Rather than preserving a clear acknowledgment of the error in the original story, the association wrote, CBS simply “removed the flawed broadcast from its official archive on the CBS site and the 60 Minutes channel on YouTube as if to say the Benghazi report never existed.” The original CBSNews.com page for Logan’s story has indeed gone dead; a copy captured by the Internet Archive can be seen here.

The temptation to clean up errors in digital media has afflicted individuals and institutions ranging from New York Times columnists to the Bush administration, but there are better models for accountability in the digital age. Consider these laudable examples of journalists prominently correcting the record rather than papering over their mistakes. First, Peter C. Mastrosimone in the Queens Chronicle (via Craig Silverman):

And Matthew Yglesias in Slate, who retained his original post in strike-through beneath this note:

Author Seth Mnookin went so far as to include a list of corrections in the paperback edition of his book Hard News.

The logistics of a correction are a little more complicated for a broadcast program, but 60 Minutes can do much better. In fact, the venerable Sunday night news institution could learn from how its downscale cousin Inside Edition handled an error a few years ago. The controversy began when the syndicated newsmagazine aired a segment on a former cheerleader named Desiree Jennings, who claimed to have developed a movement disorder as a result of a flu shot:

After the story went viral and started attracting scrutiny from critics, Inside Edition didn’t just run a brief segment apologizing for its first story, as 60 Minutes did. Instead, it aired a long segment showing investigative footage of Jennings moving normally; quoting a CDC report contradicting her account; and presenting an interview with Steven Novella, a Yale neurologist, in which he stated that her symptoms were not consistent with the movement disorder she claimed to have:

(The program’s new conclusion was supported by a subsequent 20/20 report on Jennings that aired on ABC.)

In the absence of an Inside Edition-style investigative segment on the security officer’s unsubstantiated claims, 60 Minutes would do well to adopt AEJMC’s recommendations for how to set the record straight without misleading viewers:

Correcting an inaccurate broadcast that has aired is challenging, but in today’s digital world, it can be done in a way that simultaneously preserves the original broadcast for the historical and journalistic record and tells the truth about the inaccurate content. Therefore, AEJMC recommends that 60 Minutes embed the original report together with Logan’s official correction and the link to her Nov. 8, 2013, CBS This Morning interview in which she answered tough questions about events that led to the defective report. Additionally, a correction should be superimposed across the video so there is no misunderstanding about the inaccurate content in the report

These changes should additionally be documented in a centralized online corrections page, along the lines of what Craig Silverman called for in CJR back in 2011.

While the way 60 Minutes handled the error was widely panned, the story has since dropped out of the news cycle. That’s why it’s encouraging to see AEJMC bringing continued public attention to the correction process after the fact. The incentives that lead to errant reporting are already far too great. If we want to reduce errors and inaccuracy in media coverage, news organizations need to be held accountable for responsibly correcting their mistakes—not allowed to hide from them.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , ,