NEW YORK — For the want of a better two-second picture of a tachometer, ABC News has called into question its reporting on acceleration problems with Toyota vehicles.
The network's handling of a Feb. 22 "World News" story about potential problems with computer systems in Toyotas has created ethical questions and intensified bitter feelings the besieged automaker already had toward ABC.
ABC has admitted to a misjudgment and swapped out the brief dashboard video in its report, which continues to be available online. Its story illustrated a report by David Gilbert, a Southern Illinois University professor who suggested that a design flaw in Toyotas might leave a short-circuit that could cause sudden acceleration undetected by the car's computer system.
Correspondent Brian Ross' "World News" report showed him driving a Toyota with Gilbert that was rigged to quickly accelerate. Even though he knew it was coming, Ross said the incident left him shaken, and he had a hard time getting the car to come to a stop.
Briefly during the drive, ABC cut to a picture of a tachometer with the needle zooming forward. The impression was that the tachometer was documenting the ride Ross was taking. Instead, that picture was taken from a separate instance where a short-circuit was induced in a parked car.
ABC said that editing was done because it was impossible to get a good picture of the tachometer while the car was moving because the camera was shaking. The camera shot was steady when it was taken in a parked car.
"The tachometer showed the same thing every time," said ABC News spokeswoman Emily Lenzner.
Toyota spokesman John Hanson disputes that, saying tachometers react much more dramatically when short-circuits happen in a parked car than a car that is moving. Tachometers measure engine speed.
It all points to problems that are created when visual journalists try to alter reality in order to get a better picture.
"Anytime you give the audience any reason to doubt the honesty of the piece, that's a serious problem," said Charlotte Grimes, a Syracuse University journalism professor who specializes in ethical issues.
"Do they honestly think that a company like Toyota, with all the resources that it has, would not be looking at these things?" Grimes asked.
Toyota recognized the differences right away: the shot showed the car's speedometer was at zero, the parking brake was on and no one was using the seat belts – while Ross wore one on the test drive, Hanson said. Online discussion of the differences began almost immediately, and the Web site Gawker.com wrote about it last week.
ABC edited the online version of its story shortly after that story appeared and wrote a note on its Web site explaining why.
"This was a misjudgment made in the editing room," Lenzner said. "They should have left the shaky shot in. But I want to make clear that the two-second shot that was used did not change the outcome of the report in any way."
The inserted tachometer shot still didn't specifically illustrate Ross' ride. It was from another ride made in order to create different camera angles. A camera person could not have captured the tachometer shot with Ross and Gilbert both in the car, Lenzner said.
Toyota's Hanson said it was next to impossible for the short circuit detailed by Gilbert to happen in real life. The automaker, which had to recall many of its cars because of problems associated with a depressed gas pedal, held a news conference on Monday to try and refute Gilbert's study. It depicted similar short circuits in other cars, none of which were detected by the vehicles' computer system.
Gilbert did not return phone or e-mail messages for comment, and a woman who answered the phone at his home said he was unavailable.
Hanson said he wished Toyota could have been invited to see the simulation conducted by ABC. "Simulation" is a word that brings back tough memories for TV networks: NBC's news president lost his job in 1993 after it was revealed that for a "Dateline NBC" study about alleged safety problems with General Motors trucks, the network rigged a truck with small explosives for a story. Lenzner said it was ridiculous to compare a two-second tachometer shot to the NBC case.
She said Toyota was given a chance to comment on the story the day it was aired.
"It was not like ABC was trying to alter the footage," she said. "There was no staging. There was no dramatization. It was an editing mistake."
Even before this report, relations between Toyota and ABC were on edge. More than 100 Toyota dealerships in the Southeast had agreed last month to pull advertising on local ABC affiliated because they were angry with Ross' aggressive reporting on the automaker's problems.
ABC is owned by The Walt Disney Co.