Updated, Feb. 10, 2015, 7:15 p.m. Pacific time — Brian Williams has been suspended from NBC Nightly News for six months without pay. Lester Holt will fill the anchor desk in Williams’ absence.
Updated, Feb. 6, 2915, 12:45 pm Pacific time — Clarified Andrew Seaman’s title as Ethics Committee Chairman and added italics for emphasis to lines in the SPJ Code.
This week was a tough week for Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, who recanted and apologized for “misremembering” that he’d been on a helicopter that had been shot down by a rocket propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. Williams was on another helicopter that arrived on the scene 30 to 60 minutes later. Since the admission, Williams has been called out, ridiculed, and become the butt of an endless stream of jokes – making him a real life Forrest Gump. Williams has also been compared to Hillary Clinton who was accused of a similar claim in 2008.
The news anchor’s credibility and that of NBC News has been called into question. How could such a tall tale go on for more than a decade without discovery, and how could it have gotten so out of hand, growing more dramatic with each retelling? Though a difficult time for Williams, it has been even tougher for those who feel betrayed – the military, the public, and the journalism industry. If one of the industry’s most respected journalists could perpetuate such a falsehood, intentionally or otherwise, who can we believe?
Perhaps after so many years, Williams doesn’t know the truth any more. Maybe it was deliberate, but maybe there is an explanation for his actions, as SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andrew Seaman explains in this blog post. I’m not going to try to guess what really occurred or pass judgment on Williams, though I am personally disappointed in the entire affair. Instead, I’m going to look at this as an extreme example of what happens when we ignore ethical principles as outlined in the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Here are some reminders from the SPJ Code that could have helped Williams and NBC News avoid the situation and to guide them in their damage control:
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
- Verify information before releasing it.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
- Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
- Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the weeks to come and if Williams and NBC Nightly News can rebound from this huge hit to their credibility. Some say the incident will blow over; others expect career-ending backlash. I can’t predict what will happen to Williams or his employer, but I hope that all journalists and media organizations will take a moment to remind themselves how valuable our credibility is and that acting ethically with each and every story is the only way to preserve it.
The above post represents my opinion only and does not necessarily reflect that of the Society of Professional Journalists. At this time, SPJ has chosen not to make an official statement on behalf of the organization.
~ Dana Neuts, SPJ president