Photoshopping two images together and presenting the results as a news photograph is a clear breach of journalistic ethics. It would stand to reason, then, that doing the same thing with audio clips—that is, splicing together out of sequence words that someone has said—would call into question the authenticity of the “news” being broadcast. This is exactly what the BBC did with the words of President Obama to give the false impression that he made a significant statement about climate change in his inaugural speech.
TonyN at Harmless Sky wrote, (emphasis not original) “Last night I was reading through the full text of Barack Obama’s speech just before the BBC’s daily current affairs magazine, Newsnight, came on television. So his words were fresh in my mind when Susan Watts, Newsnight’s science editor, presented a piece on the implications of the speech for science in general and global warming in particular. I was surprised when it started with this sound bite from the inaugural speech : ‘ ‘We will restore science to its rightful place, [and] roll back the spectre of a warming planet. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.’ I didn’t remember him saying that at all.”
See video of BBC’s report, “Obama’s First 100 days: Environment.”
TonyN soon discovered by listening to Obama’s actual speech that the “BBC had taken the trouble to splice the tape so that half a sentence from paragraph 16 of the inauguration speech was joined on to half a sentence from paragraph 22, and this apparently continuous sound bite was completed by returning to paragraph 16 again to lift another complete sentence.”
TonyN continued: “The ‘quotation’ that she [BBC’s Susan Watts] was referring to only exists in a digital file concocted by a sound engineer.”
Wow. Tampering with quotations is a major violation of journalism ethics. Peter Johnson, an editor at USA Today, stated that faking quotations is among the “highest of journalistic sins.” Douglas McGill, a former New York Times reporter and Bloomberg News bureau chief in London and Hong Kong said, “Quotations are sacrosanct in journalism.”
Here are the fragments (bolded) of Obama’s speech within the original sentences and immediate context. The sentences listed below did not run together but were scattered within two large paragraphs of text (see full paragraphs at Harmless Sky ). The phrases are placed in context and numbered to note the sequence in the editing done by the BBC:
* (1) We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost].
* (3) We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
* We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and (2) roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense….
After showing the footage of President Obama, the BBC announcer said: “President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today. And for most scientists his vote of confidence would not have come a moment too soon.” However, TonyN points out that President Obama’s true words when heard in unstrung-together fragments were “hardly an endorsement of the environmentalist’s pleas that we should all change our lifestyle to save the planet.” See for yourself.
The first section of the cobbling, Number one (1) above, refers to health care in its original context. But the BBC falsely attributes it to “environment” in the new context created by them—titled, not science in general, but “Obama’s First 100 days: Environment.”
The second part of the assemblage, Number two (2) above, is balanced by and softened with the sentence that immediately follows: “We will not apologies for our way of life.” imediaethics.org believes that the weight of the three separate phrases, literally and seamlessly, when put together by the BBC, changes the meaning as well as the emphasis.
Again, here is a sound clip from BBC Newsnight television program, from its Wednesday, January 21, 2009 broadcast. The video shows the aforementioned quote is the opening, continuous statement with no discernible fades in-between phrases.
When we contacted the BBC and presented these issues to them, they responded that they had done nothing wrong.
imediaethics.org wrote: “We are writing a report about a recent BBC Newsnight program by Susan Watts. Bloggers have reported that her recent segment contained audio portion that spliced together disparate phrases from President Obama’s inaugural speech. The audio gave the false impression that these phrases were a single statement. I listened to the audio and it seems the bloggers claims are correct. Are you aware of the situation? Are you going to run a correction?”
The BBC editor, Peter Rippon, responded: “We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. It was designed to give people an impression or montage of what was said about science. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. It is routine for broadcasters to edit speeches. The issue is whether in doing that you are unfair to the person giving the speech. There is nothing I need to correct. In fact I am baffled that anyone would think we should.”
The BBC “Communications Manager, News” also sent a statement after I contacted the BBC to inform her of what Rippon had said and to ask if the BBC would reconsider their position on a correction:
“This was one part of a 50 min programme exploring the start of the Obama presidency from various angles. We edited sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science as a way to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. The piece then went on to explore the challenges facing the president in this area.”
imediaethics sent these links to BBC’s footage and sound files to four experts in the field of journalism ethics and asked: “There are two separate ethical issues so it seems to me. 1. The problem of the ‘montage’ [BBC’s word] of independent phrases into a new order that without transparency is falsely presented as a coherent, single statement on green policy; and 2. The changes in emphasis and meaning created by this out-of-context audio cobbling.”
Here are the emailed responses:
|Dr. Robert S. Fortner, a professor in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, MI, used to work for the BBC. Of this issue, he said:
“I disagree with the response received from the BBC, especially the claim that the editing ‘in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying.’ Although it is true that the editing did not alter the meaning (if we take meaning to be that which is contained without the possibility of alternative meaning — a dubious proposition), it certainly misrepresented the context within which the various fragments of sentences were contained (and thus, I would argue, they DID alter the meaning). The Hutchins Commission claimed that one of the responsibilities of journalists was to report the facts ‘in a context that gives them meaning.’
By altering the context, the meaning itself was altered. A coherent claim about the environment cobbling together statements that were not designed to be approached in this way. Arguably, if Obama had wanted to highlight the environment he would have done so. He didn’t. Both of your ethical objections are correct.”
|Matthew Ehrlich, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois, said,
“This is certainly not the most egregious case of questionable editing that I ever have heard of. However, it is generally permissible to edit a soundbite or ‘actuality’ only if the original meaning is not distorted and nothing is presented out of context. In this case, Obama’s face was not shown on screen as his voice was being heard; if it had been, viewers could have seen for themselves that it was edited. Without the visual cue, they wouldn’t know. So I do think this is an example of going too far for the sake of a punchy open to a segment, though I very much doubt the producers intended to deceive anyone.
I recommend the new book Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide to Audio Journalism and Production by Jonathan Kern. It contains a chapter on the ethics of audio editing and the guidelines NPR says it employs.”
|Al Tompkins, Broadcast / Online Group Leader on the faculty at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida—which describes itself as “a school for journalists, future journalists, and teachers of journalism”—said:
“What a great case–thanks for bringing this to me. I agree with you. Editing like this is problematic (now I am assuming that what you are presenting me is true, not created by bloggers–which is a BIG assumption.) But assuming it is what you present it to be.
“The editing took what was historic, witnessed by millions of viewers and listeners and made it untrue. Something as historic as an inauguration speech should not be tampered with. This is different than clipping ‘ands’ or ‘uhs’ from an interview with a sports figure in a locker room interview. This is rearranging a speech.
“Generally, I think people understand the news involves editing. But we must strive to keep the editing in context, maintain accuracy and authenticity. This kind of editing really harms public trust.”
There are rules for quotations as you know (AP Style-book etc). In written form, one would never be able to string these three separate phrases and represent it as a continuous statement. It would be a fabricated quotation and a breach of ethics. As there is no disclosure in BBC’s broadcast, and there are no discernible “fades” in-between, when this beginning environmental segment is transcribed, the aforementioned prohibition, on violating or changing quoted words, will occur certainly occur when its written form.
Cobbling all three phrases together, we agree with bloggers, when discovered gives the appearance, if not the actuality, of BBC’s intent to distort Obama’s words into a coherent statement and emphasis on “environment” when it did not exist.
So what was the motive for altering President Obama’s words? Apparently, to provide the appearance, if not the truth, of Obama’s green policy. imediaethics.org has reported suspect reports about climate change before–for example, see post and post.
Finally, we spoke with our fourth expert.
|Wally Dean, Broadcast/Online Director, The Committee of Concerned Journalists—which describes itself as “a consortium of reporters, editors, producers, publishers, owners and academics from across media worried about the future of the profession.” He responded by email:
“If the montage at the top caused the ‘ little voice’ in your head to start issuing alarms, to me it means the montage technique did not work (which in your case it clearly did not). Two points here: this does not necessarily make the technique ‘unethical’ or even ‘untruthful’ and it does not mean the reporter was wrong to use it. ‘Cause you only have one vote. The real test is how many others heard it the same way you did. And this, in turn, must be balanced against the number of listeners who may have been drawn into the story by the use of the montage technique.”
So, folks, imediaethics.org votes “bogus report.” What do you, the public, think about BBC “montage” of Obama’s words? Election season may be over, but your “vote” counts if you voice it. Here is BBC’s “complaint” page.
(Hat Tip: The PoolBar said if photoshopped images are called “fauxtography,” then maybe the compositing together of audio fragments should be called “fauxdio.” Good thinking. It inspired us to adopt your suggestion.)