DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS: KTVU incident exposes weaknesses in a newsroom's culture - and ours

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop


Airline mishaps are so rare these days that safety experts tell us it usually takes a unique combination of errors - not just a single random act - to bring down a plane.   When the book is closed on the embarrassing error by  KTVU, the Fox affiliate in Oakland, on the so-called crew names from Asiana Flight 214, chances are we'll see the same pattern.  It's likely that a cascade of errors will have led to that error as well. 

So, let's stop to consider some of the root causes of silly errors that are made in newsrooms.   In KTVU's case, there are four identifiable realities that converged, in this case, to wreak havoc.  And they are by no means unique to that station. 

KTVU accidentally repeated a lowbrow joke in reporting the fictionalized names of the crew in an Asiana Airlines flight that crash landed in San Francisco.

KTVU accidentally repeated a lowbrow joke in reporting the fictionalized names of the crew in an Asiana Airlines flight that crash landed in San Francisco.

We have to begin with one of the dirty little secrets of the news business.  Gallows humor breeds in newsrooms.   I've never worked in one where it wasn't a fact of life.  Joking is one of the coping mechanisms that journalists develop after repeated exposure to death, violence, and mayhem.  Find a way to laugh about it - and the more politically incorrect, the faster it will spread.

The second factor is the need for speed, driven largely by the minute-to-minute nature of news updates on cable networks and the Internet.  Fact checking that used to be de rigeur before air time has suffered in the face of new competition.  

The old rule was to double-verify your information before you go to air - and always, always keeping a healthy skepticism about information from third party sources, even government agencies.   "Get it first, but first get it right" is a saying I learned at the Associated Press when I was still in college.  But the fact is that many of the lines of defense that ensured "getting it right" years ago are now gone, victims to cost cutting and relentless efficiency reforms.

The third factor is is another dirty little secret - the real life work that summer interns are often assigned to do real work, not just in newsrooms but also government agencies.   Interns in the news business are mostly unpaid.  But supposedly, they are there to watch and learn.   Handing them the keys to the car before they can drive is risky business. 

And lastly, there is societal change.  There was a time when dark puns stayed largely in their environs - in the city room of a newspaper, for instance, or on the floor of a stock exchange.  The Internet, of course, has changed all that, just as it drove the need for speed.  The more outrageous the humor, the better the chances it will go viral. 

If you are lucky, you will learn those four lessons at a small newspaper or radio station early in life.  The hope is that in a small market, public harm will be minimal, and you are early enough on your career path to have those inevitable learning experiences help nurture what I call a journalist's self-censoring mechanism. 

But when you move to the big leagues, you're supposed to leave the Little League behind.  You shouldn't make mistakes like that in San Francisco.