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The Great Vape Debate
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The Tweets That Roared

Wayward social media derailed an important report on vaping, but reminded us of the right way to handle even the smallest of mistakes.

 

One of the toughest experiences a journalist can live through is watching the credibility of a fine piece of reporting crumble because of a minor mistake.

Just one misspelled name can undermine a big investigation. Years ago, after I committed such an offense, a hard-boiled newspaper editor told me that, while he was willing to watch us gut our targets with a sharp journalistic blade, we “better make damn sure the knife’s clean when we’re done.”

OK, perhaps too edgy a metaphor. But you get the point.

I was thinking of that admonishment as I watched an interesting online segment of To The Contrary, a show anchored by the renowned journalist Bonnie Erbé and distributed by PBS Plus. The piece featured anti-tobacco activists and health experts warning of the dangers of e-cigarettes and “vaping” – a popular smoking alternative that turns liquid nicotine into a vapor to be inhaled by users.

The piece was ahead of the curve. Since it aired, the regulatory world has come down hard on producers of vaping devices in the wake of hundreds of illnesses and several deaths among millions of users around the country. Devices using flavors, or altered to use THC (the chemical in marijuana that produces the high) have been singled out as unsafe. President Trump has talked of a federal ban.

But there was a mistake in the Twitter text introducing the To The Contrary segment. That unleashed a stream of complaints – to my personal Twitter space and not to either the PBS Public Editor Twitter account or our email address. Compounding the problem was an angry-sounding tweet from the show, aimed at critics of the segment. That follow-up tweet introduced yet another mistake, escalating the social media storm arriving at my personal Twitter page, which I’ve traditionally used as a platform to celebrate achievements of family, friends and colleagues.

That is what’s spurred me to write about this episode, and hopefully make it clearer that there’s a pretty good and open process in place that allows audiences to complain about PBS programming – and lets our producers and editors respond, quickly and respectfully.

Clouds of Doubt Over Vaping

When the To The Contrary segment appeared online in late July, there seemed to be a different atmosphere around vaping in this country: Some smoking cessation experts readily extolled the safety of the electronic devices, compared to traditional tobacco smoking that delivers nicotine and an array of tar and cancer-causing chemicals. Potent combinations of tobacco and chemicals were designed long ago by Big Tobacco to deliver flavors and a dose of addictive nicotine. Tobacco for smoking, inhaling and chewing is the only product that, used as directed, eventually leads to illness and death. Millions die each year around the world because of tobacco consumption.

It’s no surprise that manufacturers would choose to market e-cigarettes to young people and to chronic smokers as a cleaner source of nicotine. If it’s nicotine you’re after, why get it with all the bad stuff in cigarettes?

Let’s pause here for a necessary disclosure: A decade ago I directed a team of investigative reporters in eight countries that chronicled how Big Tobacco was lobbying in developing nations to avoid a wave of smoking restrictions. The project, by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was partially financed by a public health initiative of the Bloomberg Philanthropies. That foundation also supports Tobacco-Free Kids, sponsors of a report about vaping that was the heart of the segment produced by To The Contrary.

Back to that segment, and the unfortunate headline on Twitter that introduced the piece: “Did you know that vaping is more toxic than smoking an entire pack of cigarettes?”

That question was incorrect. Despite the recent illness and deaths, it is not certain that vaping devices carry chemicals or ingredients that are more toxic than cigarettes. Vaping supporters went on the offensive, egged on in social media by a paid advocate of the industry. At last count, 150 or so tweets and retweets swamped my Twitter feed, complaining the piece was rife with errors; that the show is supported by tobacco companies (it is not); and that I was guilty of inaction.

Some Made it Personal

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My review of the To The Contrary segment did not yield errors beyond the initial, wayward tweet. If I were wearing my editor’s hat, I would have included a line or two acknowledging the claims by some that, compared to commercial tobacco products, vaping seemed safer. But that's an editorial decision. Not an error. And, my refusal to engage critics from the platform of my personal Twitter account doesn’t mean I was idle. There is a process to pursue all this – actions and reactions that PBS has crafted after many years of broadcasting and working with my two predecessors as public editors. I tried to follow that process, declining to mix it up with critics until I figured out what happened.

The PBS Review Process

After being made aware of a potential problem with the segment, I spoke with the show’s executive producer, who assured me that corrective action would address the tweet. What I saw instead was a new tweet aimed at critics. It was a social media screamer: “YOU’RE WRONG!!!” By itself, that would have been bad enough as it goes against PBS policy to engage with audiences in such a manner. But the same tweet went on to add another misstatement: “One cartridge of an e-cigarette contains 20 times as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.”

And again the chorus of online boos came my way.

I waited a few days but no formal corrections followed. So I turned to PBS’ Standards and Practices unit to see about the next step. The PBS Editorial Standards state: “Producers are responsible for correcting errors in a timely manner that is abundantly clear to the audience… ” And, “Producers must also be responsive to the public when errors are brought to their attention.”

The Editorial Standards also state that mistakes on social media should be treated just as seriously as mistakes made during a broadcast program.  “In the event of an error, it is PBS practice to promptly put out a new social media post with the correct information and to clearly explain what was wrong with the prior post.”

The internal review eventually led to two straight-forward corrections from To The Contrary:

“On July 28, we indicated ‘vaping is more toxic than smoking.’ While public health officials are certainly concerned about the risks of vaping, it remains unclear whether vaping is more toxic than smoking, and scientific research is ongoing.”

And:

“On July 29, we stated that an e-cigarette cartridge contains ‘20 times as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.’ In fact, we should have stated that a typical cartridge contains as much nicotine strength as 20 cigarettes.”

These should have been published sooner.

“Generally as a rule, To the Contrary tweets are written, scheduled and reviewed before they go live,” Executive Producer Cari Stein said in an email. “To the Contrary has been doing this since 2011 and this is the first time we have had to correct a tweet. Sometimes we are trying to be timely and things happen quickly. Usually, we have more time to craft the tweets.  To the Contrary has discussed this breakdown and plan to be more vigilant in the future because staff and interns are involved in social media efforts.” 

A Question of Trust

There is an important spectrum of problems affecting journalism today. We are accused of bias. There’s a proliferation of fake news. And a goodly swath of our viewers, listeners and readers trust us less and less each day, it seems. (According to one survey this year, many people mistakenly believe that sources we quote in stories pay us to do so.)

All this while critical advertising revenue for traditional journalism disappears, as have thousands of jobs in a business that has helped preserve our democracy.

Compared to all that, errant tweets from To The Contrary seem inconsequential. Yet they are important. Every errant tweet counts. To maintain trust that audiences invest in us, we must pursue resolutions when we screw up. PBS has the tools to quickly and transparently do this. We did not use them adequately in this episode.

How critical is a transparent, ethical review process for mistakes or audience controversies? A new report by a Society of Professional Journalists task force found that trust in media grows when outlets offer transparent explanations for why and how stories are produced and sources and facts verified.

So, how do you reach me to complain, question – or even compliment PBS programming?

On social media, you can shout at me via Twitter at @PBSPubEd. (Soon there will be a FB page where we can also engage.) If you need more space to express yourself, or you’re social-media averse, send an email to publiceditor@pbs.org. You can even go old school and call me, on a phone that’s connected to a wire and a wall, at 703-739-5290.

Please be civil and make note that I may quote your messages or emails in this space. I’ll trust you to give me your real name.

Posted on Sept. 16, 2019