Journalism

Third Journalist Fired in 911 Call Edits

TVNewser reported Wednesday that NBC News fired a third employee — this time a correspondent — involved in the editing of a 911 call in the Trayvon Martin shooting case.

The edit in question in this case appears to be similar to one aired on NBC’s Today show.

In the edits, George Zimmerman, who faces a murder charge in the shooting, seems to offer the race of the person up front, which would seem to support accusations that the shooting might have been racially motivated. In the actual call, Zimmerman did not mention the victim’s race until after the 911 dispatcher asked for that information.

I’ve been asking myself, and a commenter asked me as well, how I would have presented the clip if I was forced to edit for time, which seems to be the primary motive here rather than to change the intent of Zimmerman’s words.  As a promo producer, I often have to edit soundbites to fit them into a certain, narrow window of time.  About 75% of the edits I do involve removing ums and ahs and silent pauses. The other 25% involve marrying two separate bites together to make one point.

But I take great pains to make sure that I’m not changing the meaning of what was being said, but rather just compressing the “nuggets” of the conversation together so that the viewer will be sufficiently enticed to watch the actual report in which they can hear more.

It’s what journalists are trained to do.

Here’s how the widely-reported conversation actually went:

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: OK, and this guy — is he white, black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.

If I were forced to make an edit, I’d have just run the first line and cut right before the question. If I really had to cut for time, Zimmerman’s first sentence, in which he mentions that the guy may be “up to no good” or “on drugs” is an interesting comment itself.

The race issue was only an important part of the story after it was learned that Zimmerman had reportedly made several calls in the past to report “suspicious” people, and apparently all of the people he so reported happened to be black. From that specific standpoint, I can almost see how editing out the question about the race and butting the two soundbites together make sense.

Until you see the transcript, at which point it’s pretty clear that this edit creates a scenario in which Zimmerman puts a higher emphasis on the person’s race than he actually did.

Hindsight will always be 20/20, but even so, I can’t imagine that I’d honestly not notice the change. At least, I’d like to think it wouldn’t go unnoticed, because I definitely see the difference when you see what was actually said versus what was aired.

I really do believe that it was an accident rather than an intentional negative portrayal. It’s a shame — for a variety of reasons — that those involved didn’t catch the mistake before it made the air.

At the same time, the fact that NBC took the complaints seriously enough to actually terminate employees over the edit ought to say something about their motivation in trying to right a wrong and avoid false portrayals.

I realize — because this is just the way it works when there’s a chance to criticize the media — that there are those who will insist that NBC only took action to cover its butt. But at the very least, the appearance of impropriety was still enough to make the network take action.

If you’re going to blast them for getting it wrong, they should at least get credit for acting on the mistake so publicly.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 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.