CPB Office of the Ombudsman

WTTW Corrects — Finally

Joel Kaplan

December 11, 2013

Chicago attorney Stephen Libowsky recently experienced the twin frustrations of a media consumer who notices a significant error in a news report and then is unable to get anyone's attention in order to correct it.

In the case of Mr. Libowsky, he was watching Chicago Public Television WTTW's Chicago Tonight, the station's evening newscast. The news report involved an event that Mr. Libowsky was quite familiar with—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech at the Jewish United Fund's Vanguard luncheon. Mr. Libowsky was at the Oct. 28 luncheon and thus, was perturbed by that evening's report on the event.

The next day, Mr. Libowsky went to WTTW's website to find out who he could contact to complain. He used the contact information provided and wrote this email:

The report last evening on the Hillary Clinton event at the Sheraton for the Jewish United Fund contained an unfortunate error. The reporter incorrectly stated that the eventgoers paid $5000 to see Mrs. Clinton. The tickets to the event were actually $100. The event was the Jewish United Fund's Vanguard Luncheon. To be eligible to attend a Jewish United Fund Vanguard event, one must contribute or promise to contribute at least $5000 to the Jewish United Fund. The person making such a contribution can then invite other people to attend the event with him or her, which, in this case, cost $100 per person. The reporter apparently thought it made a better, but incorrect, story to tell your viewers that Mrs. Clinton spoke to 1000 people who paid $5000 each to see her. That report was simply wrong, and the reporter should be encouraged to check his facts before spreading such misinformation for whatever purpose.

Mr. Libowsky then waited for a response. And waited. And waited some more. He heard nothing. He then resent his email. Again he heard nothing. He tried to find a specific person he could email but the Chicago Tonight page on the website only had a generic form that one could fill out.

Finally, he reached out to a member of WTTW's Board of Trustees, who he knew. He wrote him:

I see you are a Trustee for WTTW. I have sent several emails to Chicago Tonight and WTTW about a broadcast on Chicago Tonight in late October that was incorrect and untrue. To date no response. Can you let me know who to contact other than the general "Contact Us" link to get a response.

That worked. Mr. Libowsky quickly heard from Mary Field, the executive producer for Chicago Tonight, who asked him to send her his original email.

Last week, Chicago Tonight ran its correction:

Before we go tonight a correction. In October, we wrongly reported that those attending the Jewish United Fund luncheon where Hillary Clinton spoke paid $5,000 for their tickets. That was incorrect. The actual ticket price was $100. The $5,000 figure was the amount someone needed to contribute to the Jewish United Fund to be eligible to purchase $100 tickets for friends and family. We regret the error.

WTTW did the right thing here. But the issue is, why did it take it so long?

And Mr. Libowsky's frustration is echoed by many members of the public who has tried to contact a journalist and found that his or her email disappears into cyberspace.

I find it particularly troubling when media organizations only have generic contact forms on their websites. They should list reporters, editors and producers with email addresses so that they can be contacted directly.

(Full disclosure: on the CPB.org website there is a generic form for any complaint to the ombudsman. However, I check those emails on a daily basis. Members of the public should also know that they can contact me directly at jkaplan@cpb.org).

Ms. Field, the Chicago Tonight producer, agrees:

We are reviewing how we handle complaints that come in through the Chicago Tonight general mailbox. I don't know exactly how this complaint fell through the cracks, but we are reestablishing our procedures so that it won't happen again.

A couple of other things you might want to know--

---Viewers can, and often do, call our switchboard and get put through to me. (As well as other members of the Chicago Tonight editorial team.) And, if they leave me a message, I will always return calls, particularly if it's a disgruntled viewer.

---We run a viewer feedback segment on Chicago Tonight, usually twice a week. That's another place where we air critical comments, corrections and clarifications.

---And finally, we also get and respond to criticism on our website. Every story includes a discussion board where comments can be posted and seen. (I did go back and checked and there were no critical comments posted for that particular story.)

I regret that his original e-mail did not get a timely response from us and we are working diligently to avoid that happening again in the future.

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