CBS gets tough on freelance editors

Media professionals freelancing for CBS are to be receive tough new guidelines after an “error of judgement” by a freelance editor forced the American news giant into issuing a public apology.

The clampdown on freelancers comes in wake of the broadcaster’s recent “48 Hours Mystery” documentary, which covered the 2001 murder of Columbia Tribune sports editor Kent Heiholt.

Using the Tribune’s own front pages to show viewers key stages of the ensuing trial, CBS subsequently received an e-mail from the newspaper’s editor “complaining” about the on-screen images.

Managing Editor Jim Robertson rightly pointed out that when viewers were shown a graphic of their December 5 splash, depicting the accused receiving a 40-year sentence in an orange jumpsuit, CBS altered the image to dress the murderer in a suit and tie.

Critics and supporters of the Tribune reportedly accused the broadcaster of deliberately trying to present the-then accused, Ryan Ferguson, in a more positive light.

But CBS retorted, saying there was no “hidden agenda” at play, rather an “error of judgment” by a freelance editor who was unaware of the “intricacies” of CBS News standards.

“We find it an egregious oversight” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours.

“If it had been brought to anyone’s attention, it never would have made the light of day,” she said, adding that the freelance editor had only worked for CBS once before.

Speaking on CBS’s news blog, Public Eye, Zirinsky admitted the altered image crept past the show’s producer, correspondent and other staff including herself, to be broadcast to millions.

However beyond an online apology to the Tribune, CBS’s reaction has been to pledge disciplinary action and new, presumably stringent, editorial guidelines for their entire freelance workforce.

According to Public Eye, an apology to the viewing public followed in the next episode of 48 Hours Mystery, despite an admission by CBS that the freelancer’s alteration, editing and doctoring was a “neat seamless move.”

Yet the corporate blog toned down to sound more remorseful, concluding, “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.”


3rd March 2006

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