Anchors’, Reporters’ Use of ‘Confirmed’ Questionable

Ever wonder about anchors’ saying a story has been confirmed? Wonder what they mean by confirmed? Wonder why they use that word at all? Wonder whether it’s as meaningless, or misleading, or mendacious, say, as exclusive, or breaking news or happening right now?

The CBS Evening News presents many stories, but seldom does the anchor Scott Pelley say CBS has confirmed a story. In one recent week, though, Pelley twice told viewers that CBS News had confirmed a story.

In the first of the two stories, Pelley said, about 6:50 p.m. ET, “CBS News has confirmed today that [Sen. John] Kerry will help the president prepare for his three debates against [Mitt] Romney….” (June 18, 2012) Better to skip CBS News has confirmed today that and plunge straight into the news, as in this sentence: “President Obama has chosen Senator John Kerry to play the role of Mitt Romney to help the president prepare for his debates with Romney.”

At 4:33 p.m. ET, 2 hours and 20 minutes before Pelley spoke of confirmation, the CBS News website itself reported the “Obama campaign” had “confirmed to CBS News” Kerry’s role.

More than six hours before Pelley went on the air, the Washington Post‘s Philip Rucker and Dan Balz had broken the story: “President Obama has tapped Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, to play Republican Mitt Romney in mock debate rehearsals, Obama campaign officials and the senator’s office confirmed Monday.”

At 12:22 p.m. ET, Rucker tweeted the posting of the story and tipped off the world.

At 3:43 p.m., among many other websites that posted the news (some were updates), said “an Obama campaign official confirms to Politico” the selection of Kerry.

At 4:20 p.m. The Wall Street Journal posted the story.

At 4:39 p.m., New York magazine quoted the announcement by the Obama campaign

At 4:55 p.m., the politics and government blog of the New York Times, posted the story

At 5:21 p.m., The Associated Press quoted a Democratic officlal as saying Kerry had been chosen.

At 5:33 p.m., Reuters posted the Kerry story.

Four nights after Pelley confirmed the Kerry story, he called that verb into service again: “Pentagon correspondent David Martin has confirmed this evening that Syria shot down a Turkish jet fighter over the Mediterranean Sea.” (June 22) Confirmed? The shootdown wasn’t exactly a secret. It had been reported repeatedly much of the day by the AP, AFP and Reuters (among others); and they provided abundant attribution.

At 11:37 a.m. ET, Reuters said Syria had shot down the Turkish jet. At 2:02 p.m. ET, International Business Times reported that Syria had acknowledged shooting down the Turkish jet. And at 5:16 p.m. the CBS News website posted an AP story quoting Turkey’s prime minister as saying Syria had shot down the Turkish jet.

Ordinarily, broadcast writers treat AP copy as though it were written by a staff writer and did not need confirmation unless. Unless what the AP is reporting seems highly unlikely.

So Pelley confirmed two stories no longer in need of confirmation.

When an anchor announces that his newsroom has confirmed a story, it eats up precious time and raises questions:

How about all those other stories not confirmed? Are they only hearsay?

Why did Pelley announce the confirmation of those two stories but of no other items on those newscasts? Or any other newscast that month?

Don’t reporters confirm all stories before broadcasting them?

Once a reporter pins down the facts and determines a story is true, the anchor can go ahead and report it as a fact.

An anchor’s saying his team confirmed a story sounds as if they had done something above and beyond what’s called for. Declaring a story confirmed may strike some viewers as a noteworthy accomplishment. And to some viewers, confirmed may sound as though the anchor is breaking the news.

Diane Sawyer, anchor of ABC’s World News, and Brian Williams, anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, also announce, infrequently, that their newsrooms have confirmed stories. And some of their correspondents, too, sometimes say they’ve confirmed a story.

Brian Williams, on his 6:30 p.m. newscast, said: “First, Herman Cain, the current front-runner, [how about making this a complete sentence by inserting is?] forced to answer allegations of sexual harassment first reported by the website Politico. Tonight NBC News has confirmed that two women accused Cain of inappropriate sexual conduct while he was C-E-O of the National Restaurant Association, and that at least one of them received a financial [settlement].” (Oct. 31, 2011) Why acknowledge Politico’s story unless you believe what Politico reported is true? And if you accept it as true, why say you’ve confirmed it? So why is he telling us that?

Politico had posted the nub of its story about 24 hours earlier. Politico went on to say its information had been confirmed by “multiple sources.” At 8:26 p.m., The Daily Beast reported the Politico story. At 9:24 p.m., the Huffington Post picked it up. At 10:09 p.m., CBS News posted an article about Politico’s story and the Cain campaign’s denial of the allegations.

At 11:04 p.m., the AP moved an article about Politico’s story that carried Cain’s denials of misconduct. And at 10:58 p.m., the British Guardian ran the story and quoted Politico as saying that at least two women had accused Cain of improper behavior.

On Oct. 31, when Brian Williams said NBC News had confirmed that two women accused Cain, Cain or members of his staff had been denying any misbehavior since the night before. And on the day of Williams’s broadcast, The Daily Beast said in its online blog: “Cain spent Monday morning [Oct. 31] denying he was ever accused of sexual harassment against two women in the 1990s. Then he acknowledged the allegations but said they were ‘false’ and ‘baseless’ while saying he knew ‘nothing’ of a cash settlement.” So that evening Williams was confirming what was already widely known.

One of the most unusual confirmations by an anchor occurred on June 8, 2011. Diane Sawyer told viewers about the criticism of Congressman Anthony Weiner, with some other Democrats calling for his resignation. She said allies were abandoning him but that one exception was his wife. Then the correspondent Claire Shipman said Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is “facing even more unwelcome scrutiny of her private life tonight: ABC News has confirmed she’s expecting her first child with embattled husband Anthony Weiner.” Remember that word embattled.

At 5:11 p.m., an hour and 19 minutes before the ABC newscast, the New York Times reported Mrs. Weiner’s pregnancy. The Times attributed the news to three unnamed people “with knowledge of the situation.” Weiner himself, the Times story said, “has admitted to engaging in salacious online conversations with at least six women.”

Twenty-nine minutes after the Times story was posted, at 5:40 p.m., the ABC News website said: “ABC News’s Devin Dwyer reports: Embattled [the word later used by Shipman] Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York and his wife…are expecting a child, ABC News has learned. News of the pregnancy, which was first reported by the New York Times, comes as the couple…”

First reported by the New York Times? Was ABC acknowledging that it learned about the pregnancy by reading the Times?

Even before Dwyer (or a colleague) read the New York Times story, other websites were posting the news and crediting the Times with breaking the story. Some of those who credited the Times before Shipman said ABC News had confirmed the story: NPR, TMZ, Mediaite, People and the Washington Post.

I wonder how ABC News confirmed the story so fast—by finding Mrs. Weiner’s OB/GYN and questioning her (or him) or re-reading the Times story?

After poking around the Internet for this article about the use—and misuse–of confirmed, I find my darkest suspicions confirmed.

© Mervin Block 2012