Oops: TV station mistakenly reports Billy Graham’s death

Journalists seem pretty good at recalling where they read a story and often who wrote it. But let’s be honest: does the average media consumer remember where he or she read, heard or listened to a story?

Perhaps a consumer might say they heard something on NPR or read something in The New Yorker because it says something about their personality, but more and more of my friends seem to barely recall where they saw information. “I saw on my [insert social network] feed” feels more common as people thumb through their phones throughout the day. In the journalistic race to be first, sometimes news outlets jump the gun and report the wrong information.

Evangelist Billy Graham was admitted to the hospital last week and was diagnosed with pneumonia. On Saturday, CBS-affiliate WBTV falsely reported that Graham had died. What’s strange about the story is that this isn’t just some random television station. This is Charlotte, right near Graham’s hometown. Plus, the hospital is offering updates to the media at the same time, so it can’t hurt to take an extra minute or two to double-check the facts. Perhaps the idea that everyone is getting the same information makes it even more of an obsession for journalists to be first.

Here’s what happened, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Around 6:30 a.m. Saturday, a producer and director in the control room saw what they thought was a bulletin on the CBS network feed to its affiliates announcing Graham’s death, said Dennis Milligan, WBTV’s news director. Kristen Miranda, anchoring the newscast, was told by the show’s producer through her earpiece to announce the news, which she did.

Afterward, WBTV called Mission Hospital in Asheville, where Graham, 93, is recovering from pneumonia, and learned he was not dead.

WBTV news director Dennis Milligan posted a statement on the station’s website, saying a producer made the mistake to run with the news.

Accuracy is the most important ingredient of any newscast. We at WBTV strive every day to make sure that the news we deliver is accurate, fair and useful to our viewers.

Today we made an unfortunate mistake.

We apologize to Rev. Graham, his family, the staff of Mission Hospital in Asheville where he is being treated and most of all our viewers.

We will be reviewing exactly what happened and we will take steps to make sure that it does not happen again.

On air mistakes are tricky, since you don’t necessarily know who saw what and it’s difficult to make sure viewers see it later. At least on a web article, you can update the article and include a note at the bottom. Regret the Error blogger Craig Silverman says the station did a good job of correcting its mistakes.

Congrats to the station for doing a good job dealing with this mistake. To recap: they issued multiple on air corrections (three by my count), posted an apology on the station’s website, and placed an apology on their Facebook page. That’s a good job of making sure viewers know about the mistake, and the resulting apology.

It’s interesting to see how the station is using other outlets (web, Facebook) other than its primary one to make sure its correction gets communicated. A few months ago, I heard a religion reporter suggest that reporters shouldn’t delete their inaccurate tweets. Similar to blogging, he said you should update your post, not delete it entirely, so people can see how the error was made and then updated. Still, I wonder whether it’s actually good to delete the tweet, since people can find the inaccurate message and retweet it, not necessarily seeing the updated one in the stream. Articles on the web can host a correction at the bottom, but on air mistakes, social media and even print corrections sometimes get lost in the stream of content.

Back to who breaks what story, journalists still seem fairly captivated by being first. Sometimes this is good: when a publication spends time, money and editorial energy into exclusive pieces, it’s nice to see it pay off through extra traffic, awards, etc. But if most major publications are getting the same information at about the same time, why the obsession? I remember watching NBC while following Twitter and refreshing cnn.com and the New York Times while we were all waiting for the Osama bin Laden news, but I don’t remember where I saw it first. Don’t get me wrong: I know 5 minutes on Twitter is like 5 days, but it doesn’t hurt to take an extra minute or two to verify facts and run with the right information before the story takes on a life of its own.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Bill

    There’s an old military axiom that applies to reporting: First reports are always inaccurate. It’s the nature of trying to be first with the info. Another axiom applies, as well: Speed is fine, but accuracy is final. Tough when on a deadline, or when you want to make your journalistic bones, or when you’ll likely get chewed out for sitting on something that turns out to be true.

    To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Rev. Graham’s death are greatly exaggerated.

  • Will

    Well, these things happen. I remember the “Khrushchev Dead” bulletin in 1964

  • http://www.faithradionet.com/ Justin

    Hopefully somewhere Abe Vigoda is laughing.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    For some reason I’m thinking about Monty Python.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    This reminds me of a bizarre broadcast in Pittsburgh concerning the death of James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King. The radio announcer for the Pittsburgh Pirates was on the air during a game and apparently saw the bulletin come in. He interrupted his play-by-play to commemorate the deceased, noting the culturally significant roles he had played from The Great White Hope on Broadway to the voice of Darth Vader in Star Wars. Co-workers were able to interrupt and stop him before he went any further in eulogizing the very-much-alive African-American actor, James Earl Jones. I believe the on-air correction was immediate.


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