Sunday, January 9, 2011

CNN Exec Explains Photo Snafu, But Questions Remain

CNN senior editorial director Richard Griffiths called about the prior blog post, but not before I got a somewhat tearful call from a friend of the kid who CNN misidentified repeatedly yesterday as Jared Lee Loughner, alleged gunman in yesterday's Arizona shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

To recap, Don Lemon of CNN apologized at about 8:59 p.m. PT on Saturday for showing the wrong picture and then, about two minutes later, CNN showed the wrong picture again. I posted the video on YouTube:

So today I got some calls. The friend of the misidentified guy explained to me that CNN's use of the photo has caused major trauma and heartache. I'm going to call the misidentified guy "Dave," a Missouri kid who says he doesn't know Loughner in any way.

The friend begged me to remove the YouTube video and a side-by-side image of Loughner and Dave that appeared on the prior blog post. I felt bad for their crisis, but the video and images are part of a broader story about the very faulty way the U.S. media handled this news event. I couldn't commit to it.

Then I saw an email from Griffiths, left, asking me to call him about "our screw-up." I anticipated he would ask me to remove the video, but instead he just asked if I'd blur out the picture of Dave. That seemed like a reasonable compromise, so I have done that. (I also removed the side-by-side comparison photo because using a blurred image defeats the purpose.)

Having Griffiths on the record acknowledging the mistake makes it a little bit more palatable to doctor the video. But how the hell does a mistake like this even happen?

Well, there's some fuzziness in there, too.

Griffiths' version of events is that a law enforcement source told CNN the name of the suspect and pointed their reporters to Loughner's Facebook site. The front photo there, Griffiths claims, was the one of Dave, and he now believes Loughner just misappropriated it for whatever reason. Griffiths said that they looked at side-by-side comparisons between the image of Dave and other images they had of Loughner and decided that it was, in fact, a match.It was my screw-up. We looked at it, it was my screw-up.

I won't re-victimize Dave by posting my own side-by-side again, but anyone who looked at it while it was up on the blog knows the two images weren't really that similar. Any which way, Griffiths falls on the sword on this one, saying he called the shot so "it's my screw-up."

But why did CNN re-air the wrong image immediately after Lemon's apology? Griffiths said that it was in a segment of the show they were re-broadcasting from earlier in the night and nobody manually fixed it. After the snafu I saw, he said, it was fixed and Lemon's apology aired several times through the night.

Griffiths said CNN is on "good terms" with Dave's family and that "they know that our error was not something we’re proud of."

Fine. But then there's this other thing: Dave's friend insisted that the Loughner Facebook site where Dave's picture came from was not actually Loughner's but was a phony site posted after the suspect was initially put in custody. I asked how he knew this, and he said they have some time-stamp data to back it up.

If so, that leaves great doubts about Griffiths' version. They're saying law enforcement pointed them to the Facebook site, but the cops wouldn't do that if it was a fake. The more likely scenario is that some whiz at CNN found it and told his/her bosses this was it and they believed it. There's no reason for Dave's family and friends to contradict CNN's version but there's all the face-saving reason in the world for CNN to put forth this explanation.

I asked Griffiths if this incident and other problems from yesterday taught CNN anything about relying on social media for facts and images. His response: "Skepticism is a great, great virtue. Social media is a great tool for getting tipped off to stories, but as news organization, we have to check and recheck and check again."

Clearly that didn't happen this time.

By the way, I asked Griffiths if CNN also had Giffords as dead. He said yes, that they picked it up from NPR "and two other sources of our own."

Oh, and the network has "done an analysis of how many minutes we were wrong." That's interesting, but also a little weird. I mean, does it even matter if it was 5 minutes or 43 minutes? Is that really the analysis they ought to be doing?


Michael said...

Glad they admitted to announcing Griffiths as dead too, I only caught a bit of news on Saturday and was under the impression she was as the half hour coverage I watched, CNN had her listed as deceased.

Nice work on the other part too, and while I'm not a big fan of lawsuits, this would be one of those cases, where I hope the victim of the mis-identity goes forward with it.