ABC News President Ben Sherwood said, in the wake of errors in and disputes over his network’s coverage of the shootings at The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado, his network had no immediate plans to change standards and practices, but would look at how to make sure staff followed them in tense breaking news situations.
Sherwood faced sharp questioning from the Television Critics Association at a presentation in California on Thursday about Brian Ross’s initial report that a man who shared the name of the accused shooter was a member of a Tea Party group, and about reports that ABC News had mischaracterized the reaction of the suspect’s mother when she was called for comment about his involvement. In the former case, the James Holmes Ross identified as a Tea Party member was not the same James Holmes who will be tried for the murders of twelve people at an Aurora theater. And Holmes’ mother has suggested that her remarks to ABC News that “Yes, you’ve got the right person,” were meant to confirm that she was, in fact, his mother, not to indicate that she believed it likely that her son would have committed the crimes of which he is accused.
“What happened was we put something on the air that we did not know to be true, and the part of it we knew to be true was not germane to the story we were doing and the story we were covering,” Sherwood said of Ross’s initial report on Holmes’ political affiliations. “That was a violation of our standards.” But he declined to provide a narrative of how ABC came by the information and made the decision to air it, saying only that the report was Ross’s error rather than an indication of a systemic failure. That lack of a narrative made it difficult to determine which ABC standards or practices were violated, and which procedures Sherwood and his team would seek to improve.
In a press scrum after the main conference, Sherwood suggested that one change might be to give on-air reporters more information about the quality of data and reports.
“I’ve asked our team to look at ways in future breaking news situations that there’s even more clarity, as things are going around, as we’re pulling things off the web, as we’re pulling things down from social media,” he said. “Let’s make sure we’re even more clear with everybody who’s about to go on the air and involved in reporting, what is reportable, what is confirmed, what is only for background…It’s a blizzard of information, there’s all this stuff going around. We can be more clear in our internal communications so that we put only on the air what is confirmed.”
Sherwood said that Ross has personally apologized to the man he misidentified on-air, but said that he would not be suspended, sanctioned or formally reprimanded, though Sherwood said “I had a very serious and stern conversation with him, and I can assure you that Brian feels sick about this.”
And Sherwood was reluctant to directly address whether the network would judge Holmes’ political affiliations, if any prove to exist, relevant to their coverage of the story.
“Your editor, the editors of all of your newspapers, says in a situation like this, ‘Who is the live shooter? Who is this person? Tell me everything I can know that we can report that is accurate and true about this person.’ We apologized because we said something that was not true about this guy,” he said. “Our mission is to tell our audience everything we can that is relevant about a person who has just committed a terrible crime that is unimaginable to us. If in the source of sweeping everything we can about this person, part of it turns out that he is a member of a particular club, a member of a particular organization, he has a particular hobby, if we judge that is journalistically relevant to a profile, a rich profile of this guy that will help our viewers understand who is this, why did he do this, than we would report those facts.”