"48 Hours" In The Case Of The Altered Image

When a broadcast network magazine program devotes time to a murder story in your hometown, you're probably going to watch it. When that network displays a front-page of the local newspaper and that page has been altered, it's a safe bet someone is going to notice it. That's what happened in the wake of last week's "48 Hours" in an incident which raises some hefty ethical questions for the news division.

Last Saturday's "48 Hours" broadcast focused on the 2001 murder of Kent Heitholt of Columbia, Missouri. Without going into the complicated details of the case, a young man named Ryan Ferguson was convicted of the murder of Heitholt, who had been the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. The crime went unsolved for over several years until Chuck Erikson, a friend of Ferguson who later plead guilty to second degree murder, told police the two were responsible for the killing.

Because of many questions and doubts surrounding this case, it made for a compelling "48 Hours" story, but it's about four seconds in the one-hour story that we're interested in trying to clear up today. Throughout the program, the front-page of the Tribune was displayed on screen to mark important moments in the case. Near the end of the show, when "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty told of the 40-year sentence recommended by the jury, the picture on-screen showed Ferguson standing in a suit and tie. Another front-page then came up, with the same picture under the headline, "Ferguson gets 40 years."

(Courtesy Columbia Daily Tribune)
The problem is, everything was accurate except the picture. That headline actually ran after another sentencing hearing and the picture that accompanied it showed Ferguson in an orange prison jumpsuit with (presumably) his attorney next to him. And altering that image is not in line with the standards of CBS News. According to the Tribune, Managing Editor Jim Robertson "complained" to CBS in an e-mail about the alteration.

"48 Hours" Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky apologized to the Tribune, and I spoke with her about how this happened.

She told me that the alteration of the front-page was done by a freelance editor who had only worked with CBS one previous time and was unaware of the "intricacies" of CBS News standards. "We find it an egregious oversight" Zirinsky said, adding, "if it had been brought to anyone's attention, it never would have made the light of day."

Zirinsky said she had spoken with the editor and that the edit was meant to only have a visual impact. The editor "actually had the sentencing hearing moving video and then he froze it" and graphically inserted the newspaper. "It was an effort to say, okay, this was the sentencing hearing and here is the graphic that shows how long it was," she said. I asked her whether or not a producer was present when the edit was made and she told me only the editor and a graphic artist were there. "Neither the producer of record, nor the correspondent nor any of us screening it knew that that wasn't the newspaper."

Because of this error, Zirinsky said "48 Hours" is instituting new guidelines for freelance editors, saying they will be thoroughly briefed by either herself or the show's executive editor on the network's graphic standards. "This kind of thing has never happened at '48 Hours' before because most of our people have been here a long time, but we had the need to bring in an outside person and this editor is an excellent editor, he just didn't know the intricacies of the CBS News standards," she said.

What does Zirinsky have to say to critics who might see a hidden motive to the edit, perhaps an attempt to cast Ferguson in a more favorable light? "There was no hidden agenda," she says, "this was a pure error of judgment on behalf of somebody who had not been in the employ of '48 Hours,' it is one we acted on immediately. We are acknowledging the error, we are upset by it and we're taking action to make sure" that it does not happen again in the future.

Zirinsky noted that she has apologized to the newspaper and an apology has been posted on the "48 Hours" section of CBSNews.com. She also said the tape has been corrected for future showings of the broadcast and that Saturday night's "48 Hours" will feature an apology to viewers. As for what other action might be taken by CBS News, I spoke with Linda Mason, Senior Vice President for Standards and Special Projects at the network, who said, "we consider this a very serious offense and disciplinary action will be taken."

Having watched the transition of the courtroom footage to the newspaper's front-page, it's a neat little seamless move. Regardless of how it looked, however, it is not acceptable to alter an image and there are many other techniques that can be used to convey the same information. Some might think that, while a violation of standards, this is a minor infraction. But to prevent the gradual erosion of standards on a larger scale, any violation should be taken seriously, as it appears to have been in this case.
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