Newhouse Journalism Experts on NBC Anchor Brian Williams 'Mis-Remembering' War Coverage Details

Feb 9, 2015

Journalism Experts at SU's Newhouse School reflect on Brian Williams issue, which they can use as a teaching moment with their students.
Credit newhouse.syr.edu

  Questions about NBC’s Brian Williams’ credibility covering the war in Iraq have created a difficult teaching moment for the Broadcast and Digital Journalism Department at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.

“One of my first reactions was, this doesn’t make it any easier in our ethics courses,” said Department Chair Chris Tuohey

Tuohey adds it does provide a teaching moment.

“As a journalist your credibility is precious and important.  And if you erode that you severely hamper your ability to function as a credible journalist with your audience and your sources.  And I think [this] will be a great way to remind student of that.”

“One of the few things you have at your disposal in a situation like that is your credibility,”  said Newhouse Associate Dean and Professor Hub Brown.  “In this situation he’s damaged it tremendously.  It’s hard to know how he’ll come back from that.” 

THE NBC NETWORK DRAWN INTO THE ISSUE TO HOLD ITS AUDIENCE

Brown says the network also has to re-establish the fact that it’s ultimately responsible for what goes on the air, and taking harsh action against Williams might show they’re being accountable to viewers.  But Brown has a hard time understanding how the story even got that far.  He’s always teaching his students to check sources and facts over and over again.

“In this situation you need to check yourself.  You need to talk to the people around you.  ‘This is the story I’m writing; you were there too, what happened?’  I can’t imagine he was the only person in the NBC crew in the helicopter at that time.  And it would seem to me that they would talk together about what story took place that they all witnessed.  I don’t know if that happened there.”

Williams has been off the air for the time being, before any longer term consequences are known. 

Professor Chris Tuohey wonders if this is a case of the personality superseding the journalism. 

“Star journalists certainly do have a certain amount of celebrity that goes with that, but it can’t be about the celebrity.  At the end of the day it’s got to be about the journalism and the credibility.” 

Tuohey says anyone who teaches an ethics class will drive that point home for students. 

JOURNALISM EDUCATORS WEIGH IN ON WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN TO WILLIAMS.

Newhouse Dean Lorraine Branham is not ready to demand a firing or other harsh action against Williams, though she's heard calls from other journalists that he step down.  

Aside from any network actions or punishments, Professor Chris Tuohey wonders how the audience might react.

“People have shown over the years they’re forgiving of missteps of political figures and entertainers.  Not 100% sure if they’d extend that same courtesy to journalists.  A Journalist becomes more of a target than most.  I’ve seen it already, a fair amount of piling on, right or wrong.

JUST HOW EGREGIOUS IS WILLIAMS ‘MIS-REMEMBERING’ COMPARED TO OTHER JOURNALISM MISTAKES.

Professor Hub Brown puts Williams mis-telling of these moments in a different category as misleading the public in a news story.

“I don’t think it’s as egregious as [the Rolling Stone story, a campus rape recounting where the victim later recanted her story]…but it’s egregious enough that it’s going to change a career,” said Brown.  “It’s a very serious issue, you’re not telling the truth.  No matter what they why is, when it comes to not telling the truth; it’s still not telling the truth.  And so, to me, that’s something where you really do have to be a little bit harsh.  You have to stop and say there needs to be a major change here.

Dean Branham notes the rules are different from someone entrusted with the role of relaying facts, happenings and other news.

"People do mis-remember, and people say things sometimes, and maybe all of us do, to make ourselves look better.  But it is a problem when it happens to a journalist, who's touted as the most respected person in journalism.  We get held accountable for that; people might say it's unfair, but it is what it is.  We get held to a very high standard.  People look to us; people expect us to be honest and credible and truthful at all times.  Whenever there’s the slightest blemish and shadow cast on credibility, we have to deal with that immediately."