When brevity is more important than accuracy, that’s when you get mistakes like NBC’s editing of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin story. TV news has always been little more than headlines with pictures. It’s particularly good at headlines for stories of little relevance or significance: “Two Dead in I-15 Collision”, “Reds Beat Astros”. TV news’ big problem with brevity happens when they deal with stories of a complicated or sensitive nature. And while NBC’s editing of the George Zimmerman phone audio wasn’t technically a headline, it’s the same problem.
While NBC has apologized for the error saying it was a “mistake” and not bias, it does nothing to solve the cause of the error: brevity over accuracy. The actual quote of Zimmerman’s comment to police over the phone before the shooting is:
Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.’’
Dispatcher: “Is he black, white or Hispanic?’’
Zimmerman: “He looks black.’’
However, the NBC Today Show producer ordered it cut to:
Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good . . . he looks black.’’
The problem is evident. As an independent video producer with 31 years of TV news experience, I’m very good (now, THAT’S bias) at editing someone’s audio without changing the meaning (though I could change the meaning just as easily to just about whatever I want the person to say). I rarely use a script and rely almost entirely on the audio I get from interviewing my subjects. In my job- producing videos for companies, organizations, and other groups- accuracy is just as important as in any news organization. The major difference is my time constraints are not as severe. I’ll take a few more seconds to edit out the verbiage to get the person’s meaning correctly. In TV news, it’s more important to keep everything on time so all the commercials get in.
Misquotes, comments out of context, and other journalistic faux pas happen virtually hourly on the 24-hour cable news nets and local morning TV news shows. The problem is that NBC’s happened on an extremely high-profile story with a competitor, Fox News, monitoring NBC and the others closely for signs of bias that they could use to satisfy their own right-wing agenda and audience. The incredible irony is that one of the biggest offenders when it comes to taking comments out of context, sacrificing accuracy for brevity, and displaying intentional bias, is Fox News themselves.