ABC News Chief Defends Colorado Coverage: ‘When We Make a Mistake, We Own It’

Ben Sherwood addresses three claims of inaccuracy in ABC's reporting

ABC News president Ben Sherwood defended the network's coverage of the Colorado theater shootings, acknowledging that a report that the shooter was involved in the Tea Party was "an unfortunate mistake" but denying two other allegations of inaccuracies.

Media pundits, conservatives and Jon Stewart have mocked ABC for a report by Brian Ross last week that a "a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado," had a page on the Tea Party site. It turned out not to be James Holmes, the alleged shooter.

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Speaking to reporters at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Sherwood said ABC didn't need to change its standards and policies because in the case of the Ross report, they weren't followed. The key is to make sure they are followed from now on, he said.

"We put something on the air that we did not know to be true," he said. "When we make a mistake, we own it and we acknowledge it … Every single day we have to earn the trust of the American people."

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Sherwood rolled into the TCA event praising "Good Morning America" for winning "the gold medal" by beating NBC's "Today" show in weekly ratings April for the first time in 16 years. But his panel quickly turned into a defense of ABC's Colorado coverage. In a sometimes contentious exchange with reporters after the panel, he was pressed on whether the error was Ross' alone and on whether it would even be relevant if Holmes were a member of the Tea Party.

Asked whether the error was Ross's or a sign of systemic problems, he stressed that his entire team had done a good job of covering the shooting.

"When the Los Angeles Times makes an error, the error is acknowledged, corrected," he said, using the newspaper as a general example. "And it does not therefore mean that all of the journalists of the Los Angeles Times did not do strong excellent work that day, doing their jobs, committed to the principles of the organization."

As for whether a Tea Party affiliation would be newsworthy, he said ABC News was trying to provide any information possible about the suspect, given the intense interest in him.

"Our instruction to our team, in a situation like this… says, 'Who is the live shooter? Who is this person? Tell me everything I can know and report that is accurate and true about this person,'" Sherwood said. "We apologized because we said something that is not true about this guy."

But even as ABC vowed to avoid future errors, it has faced two other allegations of mistakes in its Colorado coverage.

Arlene Holmes, mother of the alleged shooter, said ABC erroneously reported she was referring to her son when she said in an early morning interview, "You have the right person." Arlene Holmes contends that she was referring to herself.

Sherwood said the reporter who interviewed Arlene Holmes had detailed notes on their talk, and that ABC stands by its story.

ABC affiliate KMGH, meanwhile, said its sources denied an ABC News report that Holmes was given a face guard to make him stop spitting at jail guards.

Sherwood noted that ABC News was not alone in reporting on the face guard — the New York Daily News had the same information — but said ABC News had updated its story online to note the conflicting information from KMGH.

He also said some sources were no longer able to speak on the issue because of a gag order in the case.

Sherwood was asked if the Colorado error and recent high-profile mistakes in coverage of the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision suggested that TV news was making more mistakes because of pressure from the Internet and an accelerated news cycle.

"I challenge the assumption that 'more mistakes are getting made,'" he said. "We do live in a totally different news cycle, and that's one of the reasons why we want to learn from an episode like that Brian Ross episode and make sure that our procedurals and protocols are as absolutely strong as they can be, and that everybody understands that the reputation of ABC News is on the line. Every single thing that we do, every single thing that we say, we take that very seriously."