NBC's Gaffe

WHEN a news organization tries to spotlight flaws in a system or product that has the potential to endanger a large number of people, the motive should be to render a public service.

Readers or viewers have a right to question that motive, however, when a news organization tries to rig the evidence to ensure that it supports a story's thesis; it has overstepped the boundary between information and manipulation.

In its quest to highlight alleged defects in particular models of General Motors pick-up trucks, the NBC program "Dateline NBC" crossed that line. In the process, it did the public and the journalism profession a disservice.

The GM truck issue was newsworthy: Last week an Atlanta jury awarded $105.2 million to the family of a teenager who was killed when his GM pick-up crashed and exploded. The company is appealing the judgement.

In its segment on the trucks, which aired last Nov. 17, "Dateline NBC" ran footage of a simulated crash involving the type of truck that was the subject of the suit. The fuel tank of one of two trucks tested exploded. Viewers weren't told, however, that model-rocket engines had been tapped to the trucks to ignite a fire if the simulated crash didn't. NBC says that the explosion resulted from a heated filament in a broken headlamp as the one truck was hit broadside. On Tuesday, NBC settled a GM suit by ap ologizing on the air.Unsettling in this is that in its quest to illustrate its story, NBC was willing to manipulate the test to ensure the desired result - a visually compelling explosion of a gasoline-tank attached to a GM truck. The danger from this kind of "illustration" is twofold: to unnecessarily inject into public thought fearsome images of a vehicle whose safety record may be open to question, but which hasn't been proven unsafe; and to give the public one more reason to doubt the credibility of the

news.

In a media milieu in which prime-time "tabloid" TV reenacts crimes and grocery-store tabloids alter photos to show top politicians arm-in-arm with aliens from outer space, respected news organizations must avoid even the appearance of fudging facts - visual or otherwise.

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