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Fox Sports headline blunder calls into question journalistic code

Journalists have a lot of weird and quirky rules.

To those not raised in the culture, it must feel like an odd collection of secret codes – like convoluted handshakes that have little purpose beyond making those who have them feel superior to those who do not.

But those of us in the trenches know a great many of these rules exist for good reasons. They protect our credibility, keep the reader informed and make sure that we put the accuracy and quality of our reporting above everything.

Which brings us to Fox Sports and the current criticism they are weathering over a mistake made almost two weeks ago, in which they displayed headlines critical of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and told viewers they came from local newspapers.

The three headlines were tough, reflecting the criticism Cutler took in some quarters for not playing past an injury in last season’s NFC championship game: Cutler Leaves With Injury. Cutler Lacks Courage. Cutler’s No Leader.

Announcer Daryl Johnston told viewers: “These are the actual headlines from the local papers in Chicago.” But they weren’t.

After the Chicago Tribune took exception and proved they had not appeared in any major Illinois newspaper, a Fox Sports spokesman admitted the wrong word was used in a “misleading” segment. But they haven’t yet told their own viewers.

That’s where we get to the quirky journalism codes.

Because in purporting to tell viewers how local newspapers were treating Cutler, Fox Sports committed an act of journalism. But in declining to tell their audience directly that the reference was mistaken, they’re violating an important code: Admitting the screw up in the same place where you made the mistake.

Dan Bell, the Fox Sports spokesman saddled with explaining all this, said the organization wants to move forward and feels they have apologized enough.

“What we said on air was wrong and the graphic was wrong,” he said. “That’s why we were proactive in the market to apologize and we apologized to the Chicago Bears and to Jay Cutler. It was a mistake.”

But they have apologized to the Tribune and on sports radio outlet WSCR-AM, not their own audience.

Which means, if Fox Sports viewers aren’t also regular readers of the Tribune, listeners of WSCR or consumers of outlets like this one, they may never know a mistake was made. And critics are left to assume some executives at Fox may want it that way.

“When we make a mistake, there’s a process…and we run a correction in our main news section, which is the most read,” said Mike Kellams, the associate managing editor for sports at the Tribune. “If they don’t understand (us) on this, I have to say I’m equally perplexed by their reaction.”

According to Kellams, Tribune reporters could not find the phrases cited by Fox Sports quoted in either the body of stories or headlines. And even though some may say the newspaper – and columnists like myself – are piling on Fox Sports for a minor mistake, the idea of reporting the truth and explaining errors is an important method for maintaining credibility.

“They needed that credibility of a newspaper (for the criticism),” he said. “There were plenty of examples out there of people criticizing Cutler…plenty of ways to get at that story. Only they know why they chose that way to get at it.”

Bell, an affable guy with a straightforward manner, said he doesn’t want to quibble over details. The crew made a huge mistake, has taken steps to assure it doesn’t happen again, apologized and wants to focus on future games, he said.

But a columnist like I am is left to wonder: If another mistake happens in a broadcast, will I have to pick up a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune to find out?

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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