STORY BY EMILY VANSCHMUS
If you were watching your nightly news in 2003, you may have heard Brian Williams describe a helicopter trip over Iraq he was a part of. If you were still paying attention in 2008, you may have noticed that he mentioned this trip again.
Williams described flying in a helicopter over Iraq.
But if you were watching Letterman in 2013, or your television just a few weeks ago, you got a different version of the same story.
Williams’ story changed from flying in a helicopter, to flying in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade. There was, in fact, a helicopter hit by a grenade that day, but it was flying an hour ahead of the helicopter Williams was on.
If you’re just tuning in to the whole fiasco, you’re probably wondering why Brian Williams is suddenly confused as to which helicopter he was in. After all, he did have the story straight for the first ten years.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Several dedicated fans are claiming that this is just a human error, that sometimes, as humans, we ‘misremember’ facts or memories. Now, I’m not pretending to know anything about science or brain functions, so I can’t really take one side or the other of the scientific ‘misremembering’ debate.
However, I do believe that the debate itself is rather irrelevant. Yes, maybe there is a certain kind of brain function that caused Brian Williams to suddenly forget which helicopter he was on. Maybe some of the atoms in his brain switched around, causing him to remember being in the helicopter that was hit. The bottom line is we don’t know. And we may never know, unless mind reading becomes a thing.
The point is that we don’t need to know. It doesn’t matter what caused this mistake. The point is that there was a mistake made, and it was not corrected.
Yes, all humans make mistakes. Sometimes I forget to take my keys to class and end up getting locked out. Sometimes I forget that it’s -12 degrees in Iowa and wear cute shoes instead of warm ones.
But forgetting my keys just means I have to sit in the hall or the lobby until someone comes home. And not wearing warm shoes just makes my toes cold while I walk to class. None of those mistakes affect millions of people across the nation.
When Brian Williams makes a mistake, it affects not only him but the average of 8 and a half million viewers who watch his show each night.
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published in their 2013 State of the Media report that NBC’s Nightly News Show averaged 8.5 million viewers per night.
Journalists, especially those who affect the news that millions of people consume every day, should be held to a higher standard than the average citizen. I understand that this seems unfair, but when you put it in context it makes sense. We would expect a surgeon to be more responsible while performing an open-heart surgery than your average citizen might be on a busy day.
When people depend on the information that journalists provide, it is expected to be correct. That is the definition of journalism. If you want a career in telling stories, become a fiction writer.
Williams is currently on a six-month unpaid suspension from NBC, and while some think this is excessive, I think it is perfectly justified.
When big-name journalists make public errors in their reporting, it decreases the credibility of other journalists across the field.
The PEW Research Center conducted a ten-year study of the believability of journalists. According to the results, in the ten-year time span between 2002 and 2012, the credibility of journalists dropped by 14%. This study reflects the nation’s believability of all news organization.
Because believe ability and credibility are already dropping at an alarming rate, journalists need to be extra careful in their accuracy. Even if Brian Williams did ‘misremember’ the event, it still is not an excuse for presenting inaccurate information to the public.