At CBS, an honest mistake or something more?

First of all, it was a mistake – a serious one.

The CBS News show “48 Hours” aired a segment a couple of weeks ago about a man accused of murder in Columbia, Mo. Ryan Ferguson had been tried and convicted of the murder of Kent Heitholt, sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune.

The case was a controversial one, and Ferguson’s guilt was by no means clear. But the outcome of the trial was a guilty verdict by the jury.

As it often does in these shows, CBS News clearly took sides – on this show for Ryan Ferguson. It emphasized the doubts that many people have about the correctness of the verdict.

But it went a step farther. One of the graphics used on the program was a page from the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline, “Ferguson gets 40 years.” Under the headline was a picture of Ferguson in a orange prison jumpsuit, sitting at a table with his attorney.

But that’s not what CBS’s viewers saw. What they got was the page and the headline, but the picture was changed to show Ferguson sitting by himself, dressed nattily in a suit and tie.

CBS acknowledged the error when Tribune Managing Editor Jim Robertson sent an email pointing out the mistake. A spokesperson for the network said the graphic had been produced by a freelancer whom CBS had never used before. No one in the news department was aware of the change.

CBS has also put a correction on its 48 Hours web site, but that gives us little more insight into how the mistake was made.

In airing the altered graphic, CBS violated one of the cardinal rules of journalism: Do not alter the substance of a picture. It’s that simple. (There is more on this web site about that.)

The folks at CBS seem to get that part when their spokesperson told the Daily Tribune: “It was an egregious oversight for us not to know it.”

But then she went on to add:

“It was a graphic, and we don’t feel it changed the editorial value of the story, per se.”

Per se?

Per se, given the editorial stance CBS took on the story, it pretty much destroyed the editorial value of the story. Just what else did CBS alter in reporting this story?

Questions like that one destroy the editorial value of the story.

Too bad the folks at CBS don’t get it. It’s a great network with a great tradition of news. Unfortunately, some of the folks there are not living up to that tradition.

Jim Stovall (Posted February 26, 2006)

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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