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Monday, July 15th 2013

3:33 PM

OK, This is Bad

I am a terrible blogger. It's been over a month since I've written anything. Blame it mostly on my crazy work schedule. It's summer vacation season, so I've been working some crazy shifts and crazy hours, filling in for folks who are taking some well-deserved time off.

I've also had a little bit of writer's block. There really wasn't much going on that made me want to put fingers to keyboard and type.

But, just when it seemed as though I might never blog again, my very own profession came to the rescue. I work in the oft-criticized media. Today, I join that criticism.

How in the world did THIS happen? (WARNING: this clip may be offensive to some viewers)


That's KTVU, the FOX affiliate in San Francisco (market 6 out of about 212), airing obviously fake names of the pilots on board the Asiana Airlines plane that recently crashed at San Francisco International Airport. The station later APOLOGIZED on-air, on its website, and on its social media accounts. Despite the apology, Asiana Airlines announced that it plans to SUE KTVU, calling the report racially offensive and saying it damaged the airline's reputation. (I guess that's damaged it beyond what the crash already did)

Some people have raised the question of why KTVU would care about the names of the pilots. A lot of TV stations around the country probably wouldn't. But, I can think of a couple reasons why KTVU would. First, because the crash happened in San Francisco, which KTVU covers. It's close to the story, so names of those involved would be more relevant to its coverage. Second, it's looking as though pilot error may be largely to blame. So, the names of the pilots would also be pertinent from that angle.

KTVU's apology sheds a little light on how these fake names managed to make it onto the air. It reads, "First, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out." The apology also says that it confirmed the spelling of the names with someone at the NTSB, which, in turn, BLAMED a summer intern who "acted outside the scope of his authority." The NTSB promised to take "appropriate actions." So far, Asiana has not said if it plans to sue the NTSB.

In my opinion, the apologies from the TV station and from the NTSB do little to explain how this all happened. Neither apology mentions where the fake names came from in the first place. (An actual NTSB spokesperson later said "the names ORIGINATED at the media outlet.") And, knowing what I know about the "path" a story like this might take before getting on the air, I have a lot of questions about how this story managed to get on the air at a major market television station.

First, I'll point out that I currently have just over 25 years in the local TV news business. I've always had jobs "behind the scenes" - news writer, producer, assignment editor, news manager. After 25 years in the business, I know that mistakes are going to happen. But, I also know a little something about how newsrooms, in general, work.

As noted above, KTVU is not saying how these fake names first got introduced to the newsroom. Let's assume that they came from an official-looking or official-sounding phone call, fax or email. If by phone, whoever answered the phone (probably someone at the assignment desk, and it could have been an intern) would have had to hear the caller pronounce the names. If by fax or email, I would suspect that whoever first saw it would have told someone - maybe a producer or manager - "Hey! We have the names of the pilots!" I would also suspect that someone to say, "What are the names?" and then the person who had them to say them out loud.

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume that didn't happen. Let's assume that, somehow, the process of confirming the names with the NTSB managed to begin without anyone at KTVU either hearing the names or saying them out loud. At this point, doesn't whoever called the NTSB say the names out loud? Does this person really just spell them out to the person who answered the phone at the NTSB?

Which brings us to the NTSB's summer intern. Basically, what we're being asked to believe here is that this intern, upon either hearing the fake names or having them spelled out to him, took it upon himself to tell the person at KTVU, "Yes. That's right! Those are the names of the pilots." If the names are fake, how would the intern (who's supposed to be forwarding calls to an actual NTSB employee anyway) be able to "confirm" them? What source material, i.e. a news release, news article, or official NTSB document, did he have in front of him that he used to "confirm" these names? The actual NTSB spokesperson says this intern was acting in "good faith" and was "trying to be helpful." By confirming names he couldn't know were right - because they were wrong! File that under things that make you go hmmmm.

But, back to the TV station. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that someone at KTVU has now received these fake names and has gotten them "confirmed" without actually saying them out loud (or, apparently, even saying them under his/her breath). The next step is to put these names into the fullscreen graphic that got onto the air. It's possible that the script the anchor read is being written at the same time as the graphic is being made.

I don't know what kind of news producing programs KTVU uses. I suppose it's possible that, using some pre-produced graphic elements (which KTVU could very well have made for a story like this that has continuing coverage), the same person who took the call and phoned the NTSB, could create the fullscreen, put it in the rundown and write the script. It's POSSIBLE.

What I think is more likely, especially if, as KTVU claimed in its apology, the information was "rushed" onto the noon newscast, is that more than one person worked on this story. I suspect that, at a minimum, one person built the fullscreen while another wrote the script. So now, at least two people have seen the fake names even if no one has yet said them out loud.

Here's another point. When I write a news script, I always read it to myself to make sure that a) it makes sense, and b) that there are no words or phrases that could trip up the anchor or that might sound awkward. In the case of a story like this, reading it to myself would take no longer than it took the anchor to read it on air, which was about :25. And, hopefully, the process would ferret out the fake names.

Again, I don't know what kind of news producing systems KTVU has. Increasingly, elements such as fullscreeen graphics can be generated and put into a rundown directly from one person's computer. So, I can see how it might be POSSIBLE for one or two people to get this story on the air without ever saying the name out loud. Possible, but in my opinion, improbable.

In a market this size, with a story this big, and supposedly new information about the names of the pilots, I would expect several thing to happen.

As mentioned before, I would expect whoever received the "names" to be excited about it, perhaps shouting out so the whole newsroom could hear, "Hey! We've got the names of the pilots!"

I would expect people in the newsroom to be curious about this news, even if they weren't involved directly with the noon newscast. I would expect a lot of questions such as, What are the names? How did we get them? to be flying around the newsroom.

I would expect that sometime, while these questions were being asked and answered, the names would be said out loud.

I would expect the person who called the NTSB for confirmation to say the names out loud and not simply spell them.

I would expect more than one or two people to be involved in getting this story on the air. In other words, I believe more than one or two people had the opportunity to see the names, if not hear them, before they made air.

I would expect someone, at some point, to sound out the names, even silently, to themselves.

I would expect the process of getting the "names," getting them "confirmed," making the fullscreen and writing the script to take at least 10 minutes. That time frame assumes that whoever got the information called the NTSB pretty much right away. It assumes that the person who called the NTSB was not put on hold for any length of time. It assumes that the confirmation of the names was pretty much immediate. It assumes that the station has the tools that allow graphics to be made quickly and inserted easily into the rundown.

Still, 10 minutes is a relatively long time in TV news. It's a long time for what would be, in theory, a big development in a big story, to be floating around a newsroom. And, if any of the assumptions I made above is not correct, then the fake names would have been floating out there even longer. Certainly long enough, you would think, for someone to say, "Hey, wait a minute. These names don't sound right."

Assuming that, because the information was "rushed" on air, the anchor did not have a chance to read the script beforehand, I would expect the anchor to perhaps stop reading the script after she actually did read the first name out loud. I would expect her to definitely stop reading after she actually read the second name out loud.

In its apology, KTVU took the blame for the error. And, they should. But, as I wrote this, it occurred to me that the key to the whole situation is the NTSB's summer intern. How could he possibly "confirm" fake names? The NTSB says he "acted outside the scope of his authority." I'll say. They also say he was "acting in good faith." I'll say I have just as many questions about that as I do about what went on in the KTVU newsroom.
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