Cops and courts reporter Whitney Bermes pointed out this interesting disappearing-story mystery today.
Whitney received a phone call today from VOICE Center Director Alanna Sherstad and Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan got one from Bozeman police Chief Ron Price. Both callers wanted to talk about a story detailing the affidavit for Kevin A. Briggs.
Briggs is the man police say walked out the front door of the Law & Justice Center in Bozeman while wearing shackles and handcuffs. He was initially arrested in connection with a reported rape and knife assault.
NBC, said Sherstad and Price, had aired a story on its 10 p.m. newscast in which the station identified the woman by her initials. Both wanted to speak about why they thought that was a bad idea and make a case for why the Chronicle shouldn’t.
It was an argument they didn’t have to make. The Chronicle has a policy of not identifying confirmed or alleged victims of sexual assault. We even went back and removed a few details from our initial report this morning that, in retrospect, could have been too harmful for the woman in this case.
Here’s where the mystery comes in. NBC aired the story, but the video for it can be found nowhere on its site. Searching for “Briggs” on the KTVM site brings up a video story titled “Court documents lay out events leading up to Briggs arrest,” but the video that plays has to do solely with University of Montana students’ reactions to the possibility Briggs was in their town. It’s clearly not the correct story.
A tweet from NBC Montana still points to the story:
Court documents lay out events leading up to Briggs arrest http://t.co/h1vSWVdJAb
— NBC Montana (@NBCMontana) February 6, 2014
But it leads to a dead link.
This is me hypothesizing about the missing story: I believe KTVM realized that it had gone too far with its report and “disappeared” the story from its website.
I see this as a serious matter, ethically.
While it was probably the right decision to trim back the details in its report to minimize harm (an SPJ Code of Ethics pillar) KTVM was wrong to make the story disappear.
NBC should have corrected its story online, noting what was changed in the article (as we do at the Chronicle). And it should have aired a correction on its next broadcast. Deleting the mistake and trying to forget it existed is not good ethical practice.
Of course, neither is letting an outside party influence your coverage, like letting a couple phone calls guilt you in to deleting something. Again, I don’t know that’s what happened in this case, but it seems possible considering the phone calls Whitney and Ted received this morning. (Acting independently is another SPJ ethics pillar.)
Come to think of it, I have never seen a TV station in our area issue a correction. This concerns me because no newsroom gets it right 100 percent of the time. (I could always be wrong. If you’ve seen one, feel free to let me know in the comments.)