Generally accepted journalism guidelines call for acknowledging mistakes in news reports, setting the record straight quickly, and doing so “in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth.” The Online News Association’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code” project lists “promptly correct errors” among a short list of “fundamentals” that “should apply to all journalists.” The Radio Television Digital News Association’s code of ethics states, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”
KWWL, the NBC affiliate in Waterloo, doesn’t hold its reporters to that standard.
AN INACCURATE STORY FROM BEGINNING TO END
The Iowa House and Senate will soon wrap up a session in which Republicans passed more far-reaching changes to state law than any other cohort has done since the Democratic majorities of 1965.
Few people delve into the Iowa legislature’s website to read the full text or staff analysis of complex bills. Most Iowans–even those who are highly engaged politically–learn about important legislative happenings from the mainstream media.
The omnibus gun bill was among the most controversial new laws enacted this year. The “Stand Your Ground” section was among its most contentious provisions, drawing strong opposition during lengthy debates in both chambers.
So understandably, KWWL ran a story by Taylor Bailey called Explaining Stand Your Ground two days after Governor Terry Branstad had signed House File 517 into law. The online version was largely the same, with minor rephrasing and some edits to the source’s comments, though they appear in quotation marks. Here’s my transcript of the segment KWWL aired during an April 15 evening newscast.
Anchor MacLeod Hageman: The Stand Your Ground law is months away from taking effect in Iowa. Lawmakers say it will allow people to use deadly force to avoid injury or possible death. KWWL’s Taylor Bailey [was] learning more about the bill today. She joins us live in the newsroom with more. Taylor.
Bailey speaks to camera: Mac, some of these new bills may be confusing to understand, but Steven Foote, an employee at Mr. Guns [in Cedar Falls] says the new bill is cut and dry. He breaks it down for us today.
Steven Foote’s voice [viewer sees footage of gloved hand removing gun from holster, pointing it, with words “Explaining Stand Your Ground Cedar Falls” on screen]: You no longer have the duty to retreat if you’re confronted with a situation.
Bailey’s voice [viewer sees footage of guns in the shop, a gun in a holster]: The biggest part of the Stand Your Ground bill: you no longer have to try and run away if you feel you’re in danger.
Steven Foote speaking on camera: If you’re in the process of being mugged, you no longer have to try and run away first, you can simply use what force is necessary to stop the situation right there on the spot.
Bailey’s voice [viewer sees a handgun for sale in the shop]: That force could be a gun. Or,
Foote on camera: It could be whatever weapon you happen to have on hand. You don’t always have your firearm with you.
Bailey’s voice: Right.
Foote still on camera: It could very easily be a flash light or a monkey wrench.
Bailey’s voice [viewer sees larger guns for sale in the shop]: Right now in Iowa,
Foote back on camera: The current law the way it’s currently written means that if you’re confronted with a certain situation, you need to back up and try to run away or get away if you can.
Bailey’s voice: Soon you can stand your ground anywhere, whether that be on your property or in town, something that worries some people. [footage of a gun in a holster strapped to someone’s waist, then images of the river and a city street, cutting back to people in the Mr. Guns shop]
Foote on camera: The other big misconception is, there’ll be blood in the street, which is what they always claim. But every other state in the union that have had the stand your ground law come in to be enacted, there has not been blood in the street.
Bailey’s voice: A huge concept: a person’s life needs to be in danger before you shoot or use any other weapon. [viewer sees footage from the gun shop, including the outline of human body used for target practice, more guns for sale, someone preparing to fire in target practice]
Foote on camera: You have to be in jeopardy of great bodily harm and/or death, so you have to be in jeopardy in order to use deadly force, period.
Bailey back in the studio speaking to the camera: Now Foote says right now people in Iowa have to try and run away, and a lot of the time it’s scary to turn your back on a person who might hurt you. This bill will solve that problem. Live in the newsroom, Taylor Bailey, news 7 KWWL.
MacLeod Hageman: Alright Taylor, thanks so much. And the Stand Your Ground law will take effect July 1. Right now the law stays the same, and lawmakers say you must try and retreat before using deadly force.
Other than picking a newsworthy topic, Bailey got virtually everything wrong in this story, starting with her choice of sources.
Steven Foote of Mr. Guns in Cedar Falls is the only person quoted and may have been the only source the journalist contacted while researching this subject. (Bailey did not respond to my inquiry and blocked me on Twitter less than an hour after I challenged her reporting.)
KWWL promoted the story as “Mr. Guns employee breaks down Stand Your Ground law.”
— KWWL (@KWWL) April 15, 2017
A gun store worker could be an expert on lots of subjects, such as which firearms are easiest to use for self-protection, whether more Cedar Valley residents have been buying handguns lately, or what customers have been saying about the legislature’s action.
But Foote was not well-placed to explain Iowa law on self-defense. On the contrary, he mischaracterized current law, just like gun advocacy groups did when promoting their legislative agenda. Bailey and KWWL anchor Hageman then transmitted that misinformation to viewers and online readers.
A prosecutor, criminal defense attorney, or law enforcement officer could have told Bailey that Iowans do not “have to try and run away” when being mugged or “turn your back on a person who might hurt you.” The Iowa County Attorneys Association prepared this analysis of our state’s “Castle Doctrine” in 2012, when lawmakers were considering a similar Stand Your Ground bill. Excerpts:
Under Iowa law, there is no requirement that a person justified in using force against another retreat from their home, place of business, or place of employment […]
Reasonable force, including deadly force, may be used even if an alternative course of action is available if the alternative entails a risk to life or safety, or the life or safety of a third party, or requires one to abandon or retreat from one’s dwelling or place of business or employment. […]
Even when you are not at home/work/business, current Iowa law does not require a person to retreat to avoid use of force if alternative action causes risk to your life or safety or that of another person you are protecting.
The full document from the county attorneys group includes part of a 1979 Iowa Supreme Court ruling, which confirmed the right to use force when threatened.
Sandwiched between repeated false claims that current law requires Iowans to run away from a confrontation, Foote asserted that other states with Stand Your Ground laws have not “had blood in the street.” In fact, peer-reviewed research from Florida and states with such laws has shown a statistically significant increase in homicides after Stand Your Ground was enacted.
At the beginning and end of the online story and the televised segment, unnamed “lawmakers” are paraphrased to bolster Foote’s erroneous views. No one from KWWL has told me which state lawmakers (if any) Bailey consulted while working on this report. Republican State Representative Walt Rogers was the only legislator representing the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area to vote for House File 517. Democratic State Senators Jeff Danielson and Bill Dotzler and Democratic State Representatives Ras Smith, Timi Brown-Powers, and Bob Kressig opposed the gun bill. The most dramatic moment of the House debate came when Smith, who is African-American, put on a gray hoodie to illustrate what Stand Your Ground might mean in practice.
The idea that you can be wrong in your estimation of a threat, but as long as you have good reason, is terrifying for some of us, but only a few of us, in this chamber or in this body. […] The impact of this legislation on people who look like me but may not dress like I do when I’m here Monday through Thursday will be an increased risk of being killed.
DENIAL AND DIGGING IN
The morning after “Explaining Stand Your Ground” aired, I e-mailed Bailey and others on the news team to point out factual errors and perspectives missing from the story. I also asked several questions, such as why KWWL interviewed a gun store employee (rather than someone with legal training) about forthcoming changes to Iowa law. News director Shane Moreland replied only five minutes after receiving my message.
Thank you for your comments.
We have covered the ‘Stand your Ground’ law extensively in previous KWWL stories. You can search our web site and see them.
Out latest coverage, was not meant to be a comprehensive story. The focus was to simply break down the law as to what limits an Iowan will now have for self defence.
My reply quoted liberally from the online version of Bailey’s story:
Thank you for responding, but I am stunned that you are standing by this erroneous and one-sided reporting. Please read this analysis prepared by the Iowa County Attorneys Association in 2012:
Clearly not every story on KWWL can be a comprehensive look at a policy issue, but your April 15 story utterly failed to “break down the law as to what limits an Iowan will now have for self defense.” The story contains at least 10 demonstrably false assertions, transmitted uncritically by your reporter:
1. “You no longer have the duty to retreat if you’re confronted with a situation,”
2. people no longer have to try and run away if they feel they’re in danger.
3. “If you’re in the process of being mugged you no longer have to try and run away first, you can simply use what force is necessary to stop the situation right there on the spot,” said Foote.
4. “It could be whatever weapon you happen to have on hand,” (implying that current Iowa law does not allow self-defense with other instruments)
5. “The way the law is currently written means that if you’re confronted with a certain situation you need to back up and try to run away or get away if you can,”
6. Soon Iowans can stand their ground anywhere. Whether that be on their property or in town.
7. “Every other state in the union that has had the stand your ground law enacted has not had blood in the street.”
8. Foote says right now people in Iowa still have to try and run away.
9. Adding a lot of the time it’s scary to turn your back on a person who might hurt you, but this bill will solve that problem.
10. Right now Iowa law remains the same. Lawmakers say you must try and retreat before using deadly force.
Just so we’re clear: you are refusing to correct or retract any portion of this report? I urge you to reconsider, and to ask your journalists to go to legal experts for future analysis of Iowa law.
Moreland’s next reply was succinct:
Here is one of our earlier reports Laura, perhaps you missed.
That link leads to a special report by Ally Crutcher, which KWWL ran two months ago. In Ally Get Your Gun, Crutcher demonstrated how easy it is for Iowans to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon, even with almost no experience handling firearms.
My permit was ready for pick-up two weeks after I applied for it. I went to the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office, showed my certificate of training from my online course, showed my ID, and after a signature and photo, I was handed my permit.
I am now legal to carry. And I’ve only fired a gun eight times in my entire lifetime, and that happened in just the last two weeks at the gun range.
“The legitimate needs of the community, and of your neighbors, to know you can hit the broad side of the barn, and not the baby in the back seat next to the barn, that’s important,” Sheriff [Tony] Thompson said.
Sheriff Thompson estimates roughly 100 permits to carry are issued a month in Black Hawk County alone. I asked him of those people, how many does he think have suitable training:
“I would guess less than 10 percent.”
Crutcher’s reporting is solid, but her story had nothing to do with Stand Your Ground. It was about permitting rules in effect since the Iowa legislature approved the gun lobby’s “shall issue” bill in 2010. So I wrote back to Moreland:
Shane, is your contention that it’s ok for Taylor Bailey to misinform KWWL viewers and readers about the “duty to retreat” on April 15 because on February 16, Ally Crutcher did an in-depth report on training requirements for Iowans seeking a permit to carry a concealed weapon?
Steven Foote is not an expert on Iowa law and made numerous false statements to your reporter about what current law requires. You don’t have to turn and run away if you are threatened. You can defend yourself or another person who is threatened anywhere, anytime, under current Iowa law. Minimal research on Taylor Bailey’s part would have revealed those facts. She could have avoided misleading your viewers and readers by seeking comment from an attorney or public official with expertise in this area of the law, instead of building a whole story around one gun store employee’s misguided opinions.
Failing that, KWWL could at least correct the record now.
What is KWWL’s policy on corrections? I correct mistakes if readers bring them to my attention.
I didn’t hear back, so three days later I contacted Moreland again to ask, “Does KWWL have a corrections policy? Or does your station have a policy not to correct any report after publication?”
Moreland replied simply, “Our story stands as reported.”
“A RATHER PERSISTENT PROBLEM WITHIN JOURNALISM”
As mentioned at the top of this post, journalism guidelines invariably embrace the goal of accuracy and call for publishing corrections promptly as needed. However, longtime reporter turned journalism professor Scott R. Maier has found that “errors in the news media are disturbingly common,” and most inaccurate reports are never corrected. In one study, Maier “tracked 1,220 news stories identified by news sources as being factually flawed. Of those, corrections were published for 23 of them, a corrections rate slightly below two percent.” Then Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote in 2009 about a backlog of hundreds of correction requests at that newspaper, some of them years old. “Accountability is lacking. Reporters and editors can neglect correction requests with little real consequence,” he lamented.
So I shouldn’t be surprised that KWWL blew off my concerns–especially since media organizations are often more willing to address small mistakes than major problems with their reporting.
The late, great media commentator Steve Buttry experienced that phenomenon firsthand when he joined forces with a “thorough and persistent” New York Times reader seeking corrections to a “puff piece” the Times had published eight years earlier. Buttry noted with frustration that the most prestigious newspaper in the country had quickly corrected a story referring to Han Solo’s ship as the “Millennium Force” instead of the “Millennium Falcon.” Yet senior editors and the Times ombudsman were unwilling to alter a profile that was misleading at its core.
Mallary Jean Tenore explored the same problem in a piece for the journalism site Poynter.
Misspelled names and typos are among the more basic errors journalists make. But there’s another type of error that is harder to correct: when journalists miss the story completely.
“You can do all the legwork of saying ‘We spelled Kathryn Schulz’s name wrong,’ but that doesn’t get you anywhere near the deep and substantive wrongness that we sometimes commit in the field,” [author of the book Being Wrong] Schulz said by phone. “We have this formalized mechanism for dealing with very small errors, and they’re not necessarily trivial, but we don’t have any mechanism whatsoever for ‘Oops, we blew it, we missed the entire point’ types of errors.” […]
Some news organizations and news consumers have been experimenting with correction tracking software. MediaBugs, an open-source, correction-tracking service that launched in April , lets users report and discuss errors they see in San Francisco Bay Area news stories. Creator Scott Rosenberg said MediaBugs users almost always file fact-related errors and that editors have responded well to the reports.
Generally speaking, though, he said most news organizations don’t handle bigger picture errors very well.
“Either the editors decide ‘Hey, we did it this way and we were right, we stand by our story and that’s that,’ ” Rosenberg said via e-mail. “Or, if they do feel they screwed up in some way, they run a follow-up that redefines the story without formally acknowledging that they’re ‘correcting’ anything.”
In his excellent post, “Is there a statute of limitations on correcting errors or updating flawed stories?” Buttry quoted Kevin Smith, a former chair of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee.
Unfortunately, you’ve stumbled onto a rather persistent problem within journalism, even at the very highest levels. All the ethical cajoling can’t seem to convince media outlets to make thorough repairs to damaged reporting and take accountability for what’s been erroneously shared with the public. […]
In a case such as this, one would rightfully think that revisiting the story and correcting it holistically would best serve the public. Rarely is that done. …
[…] The whole premise of the original story was wrong. They should have a reporter revisit the story and use the same time and resources to write a corrected version.
Another possibility: a media outlet may “unpublish” an article flawed beyond repair, as KWWL’s Stand Your Ground story arguably was.
“STORIES LIVE ONLINE FOR YEARS”
At this point, why does it matter if KWWL aired an inaccurate piece last weekend? Isn’t it water under the bridge?
Media ethicists increasingly recognize that “stories live online for years.” For that reason, Smith told Buttry, the Society of Professional Journalists added language to its ethics code saying “there is an extended reach and long-term implications to stories like never before. […] Stories don’t end when you’re tired of writing them. They live on more than ever and ethical journalists provide updates to stories and complete the stories as appropriate.”
The code of ethics of the Radio Television Digital News Association states, “Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.”
Bailey’s story got one thing right: the new gun law will go into effect on July 1. As that date approaches, count on lots of people to google “Stand Your Ground Iowa” or some other phrase that could bring up KWWL’s article. Those readers will come away not understanding what changed this year.
No one likes to make a mistake, and few reporters ever deliberately misstate a fact. I don’t enjoy calling attention to my errors either, and I’ve made some embarrassing ones. I had to correct one of my own posts about the Republican gun bill.
My goal is not to bash Taylor Bailey. I’m far more troubled by the KWWL news director refusing to acknowledge the April 15 story required corrections, if not a full retraction. I can’t fathom standing by a piece after a reader pointed out something so fundamentally wrong with the work.
“Dismayed by the continuing refusal of respected media companies to re-examine and correct their reporting when confronted with documentation of their errors,” Buttry wrote (emphasis added),
I can see that editors and news directors might find [reader Nancy] Levine’s persistence annoying (see my comment about her potential as an investigative reporter; investigative reporters can be intensely annoying, especially when they are on a hot trail). But she provided newsroom after newsroom with documentation that challenged the very premises of their stories. How is that not a code-red situation demanding immediate action, investigation and correction by the news organization? […]
Corrections are important externally because they remind readers/viewers of your commitment to accuracy. Corrections are important internally because they remind staff of your commitment to accuracy, verification and integrity.
The bar you have to clear to correct a fact should be simple and not that high: Was a fact wrong?
A young reporter in her first year on the job needs mentoring on how to research an issue and check facts coming from a potentially biased source, like a gun store employee speaking about a pro-gun law.
Instead, Bailey learned from this experience that her boss will have her back, even if she screws up monumentally. She doesn’t have to own up to mistakes. She can ignore messages from critics and block them from her social media feeds.
Emerson Stone, former vice president for news practices at CBS News, offered a “10 point plan for stations wishing to develop or fine-tune a corrections policy,” starting with “Welcome all who point out your mistakes” and ending with
10. Lose the attitude. It is time that we put behind us the days of circling the wagons against claims of error; time to cease those brusque I-haven’t-got-time telephone cutoffs or we-stand-by-our-story letters of response.
Amen to that.
UPDATE: Moreland blocked journalist Gavin Aronsen of the Iowa Informer after Aronsen tweeted a link to this post with the comment, “Appears that @ShaneKWWL’s news direction leaves something to be desired.”
LATE UPDATE: Whoever handles KWWL’s social media blocked me from reading the tv station’s Twitter feed soon after I published this story.