Agency Tackles CBS 60 Minutes

Article excerpt

The police department of Naperville, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago; population 127,000;168 sworn officers) is duking it out with CBS TV's newsmagazine program 60 Minutes over a pair of erroneous reports that the network broadcast in 1997 and 1998. It's a classic case of David taking on Goliath.

The facts are: In 1997, four DuPage County sheriff's deputies were among seven people indicted on charges they'd conspired to railroad a defendant in the high-profile Jeanine Nicarico murder case. On October 12, 1997 60 Minutes reported the story, but instead of using video of DuPage County sheriff's deputies and vehicles, 60 Minutes showed Naperville police officers and Naperville squad cars. However unintentional it may have been, to Naperville police chief David Dial it was a serious error. Dial said his department was "flooded with calls, letters and Internet e-mail" from people who'd seen the flawed 60 Minutes report, and were "appalled at the conduct of the police officers."

If you'd been Chief Dial, what would you have done? One of the Country's most respected news organizations told the whole world your people messed up, which simply wasn't true. Would you fall back on the old excuse "You can't win a fight with a 900-pound gorilla," and ignore it? Or would you try to set the record straight?

Dial chose the latter course. The day after the flawed broadcast he wrote to 60 Minutes, expressed his "disappointment," and asked that 60 Minutes "take the necessary steps" to correct the error.

To their credit, two weeks later 60 Minutes did just that. At the end of the program on October 26, 1997, reporter Ed Bradley offered this clarification: "Two weeks ago, in the course of reporting that seven DuPage County, Illinois cops and prosecutors had been indicted for knowingly sending an innocent man to death row, we showed a shot of a Naperville police car and immediately heard from Naperville`s police chief. He wrote that if anyone got the impression that the men who were indicted were from his department they were wrong. They were DuPage County policemen. Glad to clear it up, Chief."

It was not a ringing apology, and not enough of a correction to undo the damage done to Naperville's reputation. Dial thought Bradley's statement was "flippant," but saw it as better than nothing. He believed the matter was closed. He was wrong.

Nine months later, on July 26, 1998 60 Minutes ran an update on the story - and again broadcast the same video of Naperville officers and vehicles. It was incredible behavior by a supposedly credible news program.

Dial angrily fired off another letter, this time to Andrew Hayward, President of CBS News. He wrote, "Continued irresponsible and inaccurate reporting by 60 Minutes has damaged not only the reputation of a proud city but has also resulted in serious questions about the credibility of CBS News journalists... once again, the Naperville Police Department, as well as our entire community, had been slandered by 60 Minutes."

Dial requested another correction, and concluded, "If professional integrity is truly the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility, we believe it is incumbent upon 60 Minutes to take appropriate action to demonstrate that integrity."

This time Dial took the added step of sending copies of his correspondence to several media watchdog organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ.) I've mentioned SPJ's Code Of Ethics in previous columns, and mention that Code in every media relations class I teach. The Code - drafted by journalists for journalists - states reporters should "Seek truth and report it... minimize harm... and be accountable." 60 Minutes failed miserably to live up to those reasonable and proper standards. …