04/18/2012 09:27 am ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

For TV News, Controversy Lurks in Every Edit

NBC News found itself immersed in some big hot water recently because of one small editing decision. On an episode of the Today Show, the network aired a portion of George Zimmerman's 911 call on the night Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.

The NBC version had Zimmerman telling a dispatcher "the guy looks like he's up to no good... he looks black." On the un-edited recording, Zimmerman doesn't say "he looks black" until the dispatcher asks for a description. That brief audio adjustment presented Today Show viewers with a different impression of George Zimmerman's attitude and personality than they would have gotten from hearing the original tape.

NBC might have saved themselves a lot of grief if someone inside the production pipeline had sounded an alarm bell immediately and said, "That Zimmerman sound bite we just aired was NOT accurate and we need to do something about it!" What happened instead followed a sad but familiar story line. Bloggers discovered the discrepancy and had a field day basting NBC with allegations of slanted coverage and other journalistic malfeasance.

The network has reportedly fired one producer involved in the Zimmerman tape editing, disciplined several others, and news executives say they're taking "necessary steps" to make sure similar incidents don't happen again.

Having worked in TV and radio for many years, pretty much everything about this controversy is old news to me. I'm frankly surprised that these embarrassing dust-ups don't happen more often.

After conducting an internal review, NBC officials said one key factor in the editing was simply making the segment fit into the amount of time it had been allotted. Time is always a bogeyman in TV news. Reporters and producers battle over it constantly. I've watched some of those fights up close and they can get pretty intense.

The ongoing time crunch also means that anybody interviewed for a story will never see more than a few of their lines on the broadcast. One complaint every reporter gets from time to time goes something like this: "You talked to me for 15 minutes and used my two worst answers!"

In this environment the borderlines separating truth, accuracy and misrepresentation aren't difficult to violate, accidentally or otherwise. I vividly recall the night I deliberately ignored the lines and got away with it.

I was working for a TV station in the Bay Area. The story was a quick 30-second video clip that was part of our 'news from the around the country' segment. It had been shot from inside a helicopter that was hovering above a flooded creek. The chopper was rescuing a driver whose car had been caught in the raging waters.

You could hear the voice of a crewman yelling, "There he is! We got him!" as the man was hauled up from his car on a cable. But there was a problem: the camera was shaking and pointing toward the sky when the crewman was calling out. Then the shot stabilized and moved downward to show the driver grabbing the cable.

If I had used the sound and the video as they occurred the segment would have run way too long, possibly 45 seconds. My solution was to edit the sound so it matched the pictures. Viewers saw the man grabbing for the cable as the rescue voice said, "There he is!" It all meshed perfectly. The video showed a real event. It was the truth. But was it presented accurately, exactly as it happened? No, not quite.

My only worry was that the video had come from a satellite service that was also used by other local stations. If one of them ran the same story in it's original form, there was a chance one of my bosses might see it and notice that our version was not the same. But it didn't happen.

I wonder how many TV stations in this country will use the NBC controversy to begin regular discussions in the newsroom about these types of situations? How many news directors will draw up a detailed manual of standards and practices for editing interviews and video? Establishing quality controls and review procedures isn't a quick or easy process. It takes extra work and a lot of that always-scare newsroom commodity -- time.

I'm glad NBC is taking "necessary steps" to prevent something like this from happening again. But here's a news flash -- people make mistakes. No amount of rules and review procedures can eliminate human error. It may be the result of carelessness, stress, sloppy judgment, or some totally unforeseeable glitch. Put in all the safety steps you want, but sooner or later somebody will trip and fall over one of them.