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‘Today’ Show Apologizes for Errant Photo in Charleston Story

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by PatrickDecember 9, 2016

NBC’s Today show apologizes Thursday for a photo of a protest that found its way into footage of an unrelated story…but some say it wasn’t enough.

During Wednesday morning’s Today show on NBC, as anchor Matt Lauer reported on the mistrial of the former North Charleston police officer charged with the April 4, 2015, shooting death of a motorist, he made mention of local leaders calling for peace:

“The mayor of Charleston, community leaders and South Carolina’s governor, are urging a calm response to that ruling,” an image from the 2015 protests in Baltimore appeared on the screen.

That protest was in response to the death of Freddie Gray, another black man who died at the hands of police.

In Charleston, of course, things were much, much quieter.

Conspiracy theorists and media haters — which seems to cover pretty much everyone these days — united to slam the media for intentionally trying to “incite” a riot in the Holy City.

I’ve yet to have anyone provide a sufficient explanation as to how one image of a protest somewhere else — one that locals would easily recognize as being a shot from somewhere else — can cause a riot.

After being thrashed on social media, the network apologized:

“The video mistakenly included an image from an event not related to the Scott trial, and we apologize. The image has been removed from the story online, and we will make an on-air correction and apology tomorrow,” said Megan K. Stackhouse, vice president of public relations for the “Today” show and NBC News.

No one, it seems, is willing to consider the possibility that it could have been an accident…or even an honest mistake. Full disclosure here: I don’t work for Today or NBC, and I don’t know anyone at NBC involved in this blunder.

But I have worked in television for more than 25 years now, and so I know how easy such a mistake can happen: a simple lack of communication. There’s an old joke in television stations from one end of the country to the other involving the genuine lack of communication in this part of the communication business. Unfortunately, it’s less joke and more reality.

Here’s how it could have happened.

The story during which the errant shot appeared lasted less than 30 seconds. That’s actually a bit short for a more serious story towards the top of the show unless you’re talking about a story that’s part of a “digest” of top stories. But let’s say a producer wrote a story about the Charleston story and added a part about how reaction in Charleston, so far, has followed the guidance of local leaders in contrast to other cities like Baltimore where rioters took to the streets. Said producer then instructs a video editor to assemble shots from the Charleston trial, and after so many seconds — say, 25 or so — to edit on shots from other riots.

The editor does as instructed, creating a clip of video that has footage from Charleston followed by riot footage.

At some point between the time the producer tells the editor what to edit and the time the show airs, some other big story pops up somewhere, forcing other stories to be trimmed. The Charleston story gets trimmed and now ends with the part about Charleston leaders urging for peace.

But the producer doesn’t tell the editor about the change.

So the anchor reads the shortened, edited script while the longer, unmodified video clip plays. Unless the anchor is careful to speed through the script, it’s possible you may see a glimpse of that riot shot that comes just where it originally should have before the script was changed.

Yes, it’s a very simple scenario.

And believe it or not, little things like this happen all the time, with no “evil intent” on the minds of anyone. It’s not about trying to “incite.” It’s just simple carelessness in managing a lot of moving parts.

Something as simple as that could have caused this entire debacle.

But there’s a segment of the audience, I know, who’ll never believe something this silly is even possible. And no matter how much Today apologizes, those viewers will never accept it.

The only real question for viewers who feel that way should be the obvious one: Why do they watch to begin with?

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Patrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 26 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.
4 Comments
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  • December 10, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    After reading your explanation, I’m surprised this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often! I never really gave it much thought.

    • Patrick
      December 12, 2016 at 8:13 am

      As an industry, the TV news business is lucky it doesn’t happen more often. The more we try to “do more with less,” the more likely errors like this have the chance to make air. Unfortunately, there’s such an anti-media climate that people assume it can’t possibly be an accident and that it must be part of some terrible plot.

  • Diana L
    December 10, 2016 at 8:03 am

    What I don’t like is when they interview you and then they ask for some footage of you walking or at your desk, then they also use the footage on an unrelated story a year later and they use the footage of you walking in the park for background as they talk about the other story.

    • Patrick
      December 12, 2016 at 8:15 am

      Yes, that’s called “B-roll,” a term from the old days of editing news footage on film. Stations are supposed to be very careful when they use footage from one story in a generic matter on other stories, but sometimes when editors are searching for video quickly, they grab what they can find from other stories on the same topic. Out of context, this can likewise be a disaster waiting to happen and it can create exactly the same kind of controversy.

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