What We Should Ask About Williams’ Mistake

(UPDATED: February 6, 2015 at 3:13 p.m. EST and February 10, 2015 at 8:12 p.m. EST )

Brian Williams aired a heartwarming story the other night on NBC Nightly News.


He talked about a tribute he arranged for a retired soldier, who protected his NBC News crew during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Since then, Williams’ version of events was called into question by a report appearing in Stars and Stripes, which is a publication of the U.S. Department of Defense. Williams admitted he made a mistake by confusing whether the helicopter he rode in during the invasion was hit by ground fire.

As it turns out, Williams’ version of events changed over the years. For an excellent summary of what happened and how Williams’ story changed since 2003, I suggest you read Mike Sisak’s Tumblr post here.

Of course, people are now debating whether Williams should be fired from NBC. Also, people are debating if Williams intentionally changed his story or simply misremembered.

At this point, the public doesn’t know enough to say what Williams’ intent – if he had any – was to change his story. NBC should investigate how and why his story changed since 2003. More importantly, NBC should ask how the incorrect version of the story made it to air.

The medical

As many people pointed out over the last few days, it’s very possible Williams simply messed up the facts while remembering what happened 12 years ago.

Dr. Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist based in Atlanta, makes a compelling case on CNN.com about why people should give Williams the benefit of doubt.

“Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it. Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on what’s going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.”

I, too, will give Williams the benefit of doubt — because there is simply not enough information to know whether or not the newsman meant to deceive his viewers.

The ethical

There is enough information to say NBC News should review its editorial practices, however. Any news organization should have checks and balances in place to prevent the false memory of one person from being broadcast across the United States.

What are those checks and balances? It depends on the medium and outlet. In this case, someone had to mine the NBC News archive for video footage. Additionally, someone had to produce the package. Perhaps they can fact-check the story.

News organizations practicing due diligence is important to all journalists and society.

Monica Guzman, the vice chair of SPJ’s ethics committee, expressed these concerns during an interview with Roxanne Jones, the founding editor of ESPN The Magazine, for CNN.com:

“We know the difference between when the WWF wrestler says, ‘I’m going to kill you…’ and what Brian Williams says on a newscast. We have an expectation of accuracy and it needs to be credible. If we don’t have sources of information that we can trust, we cannot be an informed society.”

While people may be able to forgive Williams for forgetting key details of his time in Iraq, we should still ask how his confusion made it to air on one of the United State’s highest-rated news shows.

We’ll keep following the developments of this story and update the blog as needed.


UPDATE 1

Richard Esposito, the head of NBC’s investigative unit, will head an investigation into Brian Williams’ statements, according to the Associated Press.


UPDATE 2

Politico’s Dylan Byers is reporting that NBC News suspended Brian Williams for six months without pay. Byers included a memo from NBC News President Deborah Turness:

While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.

In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.

As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.


Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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