How can a major local TV station adequately correct misleading election information it published in an environment where a credible news outlet’s mistakes can become weaponized for partisan gain?
Denver’s CBS4 is finding out just how difficult that is. The still-unraveling storyline stems from the station publishing a report the news outlet later determined wasn’t fit for print and erased from its website. Typically, a news organization might explain to its audience what happened and try to correct the record in a way that attempts to reach as many people as might have seen the incorrect report. That’s not what’s playing out at CBS4.
First, the background: Last week, veteran CBS4 journalist Shaun Boyd published a story that suggested the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, was sending postcards through the mail “urging some non-citizens and dead people to go online and register to vote” and that the recipients’ names might have come from the state’s voter rolls. (They didn’t.) Postcards educating Coloradans on voter eligibility and registration aren’t new. Previous Republican Colorado secretaries of state sent out similar ones with apparently little controversy. I personally know a non-U.S. citizen who got one recently. (She also received a mailing for jury duty.) But the CBS4 report, relying on an interview with a state election official, did not make clear these are two separate, unconnected lists. And that has caused a major problem.
After the story ran, the Secretary of State’s Office got in touch with CBS4, and the station’s news director, Tim Wieland, pulled the story from the web.
The state elections official interviewed for our story repeatedly referred to the voter rolls in reference to the mailing list during the interview. The Secretary of State's office informs us there is no connection. (2/4)
— Tim Wieland (@CBS4Tim) September 27, 2020
The problem is, the story had been out there for a while— and out there during a time when President Donald Trump and his allies are sowing doubt and suspicion about the credibility of mail-in ballots. Colorado in recent years has become the gold standard for safe and credible elections conducted mostly by mail. Before the inaccurate story came down, its contents had spilled across right-wing media. You can imagine the framing.
From The Gazette:
On Sunday, Breitbart posted what amounted to a rewrite of the original story and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, tweeted the story to his 5.6 million followers along with graphic sirens and the comment, “Sure the Dems aren’t trying to cheat!!!” By Wednesday morning, the Breitbart story had been shared on Facebook more than 57,000 times, and the younger Trump’s tweet linking to the retracted story had been retweeted and liked nearly 20,000 times.
In other words, more people likely saw an incorrect framing of “mistake news” than did those who later found out it was in error. Here in Colorado, George Brauchler, a Republican star and Denver-area district attorney, tweeted his own link to the CBS4 story along with the comment: “Well, they’re only mailing registration reminders to dead people and non-citizens. There’s no way that could happen with ballots, right?”
And, just like that, all of a sudden Colorado, “the safest place to cast a vote,” became an object of … controversy.
Since the misleading story hit the web, it didn’t merely wind up as social media fodder for Republicans to cast doubt on the nation’s No. 1 mail-in election system. Colorado Congressman Ken Buck, who leads the state Republican Party, now has asked the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Elections Commission to investigate.
At issue are postcards sent by the Secretary of State’s Office — the state agency in charge of Colorado’s elections — with instructions on how to register to vote. Some of the postcards were sent to people who are ineligible to vote, including deceased Coloradans. A CBS4 Denver story last weekend incorrectly suggested the same mailing list is used for ballots, leading to a conservative outcry.
[Cue narrator voice]: That escalated quickly.
Over the phone this week, Wieland declined to offer more public detail about the circumstances surrounding the original story beyond what he has already said on social media. After pulling the story from its site, the station ran a subsequent story about the mailers in an attempt to clear the air. Boyd interviewed the current Democratic officeholder, Jena Griswold, who said, “the key is that the mailing to encourage potentially unregistered people to register is not the same mailing as our ballot mailing. Those are two separate universes.” The story noted the mailings lay out requirements that make a voter eligible. The headline of that CBS4 story was “Colorado’s Secretary Of State Sets The Record Straight On Voter Registration Postcards.”
But does that really set the record straight? Not particularly.
A link to the retracted CBS4 story reads “Page Not Found.” I asked Wieland, the CBS4 news director who is known for transparently inviting his audience behind the scenes of his station, if he considered replacing the broken URL with an explanation or some kind of note since it was so prominently shared on social media. He said he’d think about it, and added that in all his years at the station he hasn’t been in such a position before. “We’re trying our best to figure out the right way to mitigate it,” he said.
Lynn Walsh of the Trusting News project, which seeks to help newsrooms and journalists establish trust with their audiences, says once a news outlet corrects a story, “they should make sure that it is clear the story was corrected.” That could be by publishing an editor’s note, “notes within stories close to where the error was made,” updating social posts, or pinning comments on social media or social videos. She also encourages journalists to explain how a mistake happened and what they are doing to prevent something like it in the future.
I haven’t seen that yet from CBS4, and I wonder how this scenario might be instructive for future newsrooms in the digital age. How can a local news outlet put the toothpaste back in the tube, especially when some stories are syndicated or, even if they’ve been deleted, are easily re-surfaced via Google Cache and the Wayback Machine? How can anything CBS4 does compete with a political figure with 5 million followers or a digital army that spreads improper framing around ideological media, ginning up outrage? The TV station seems to have moved on as its deleted story becomes like the cartoon shadow on a wall that turns into a frightening monster.
That was evident all week as news outlets in Colorado covered the practical political flames the deleted story sparked. Local journalists noted up high in their reports — and even in headlines — how the CBS4 story got away from the station and the consequences it triggered.
From today’s Denver Post:
There is no evidence that Colorado is trying to register dead people or noncitizens. Several officials within Colorado’s GOP told The Post that they recognized this from the onset, and that this prompted some internal debate following CBS4’s story. The story was based on a faulty premise, but it was out there, given new post-retraction life by conservative outlets, and the Trump campaign was interested in advancing it.
The ramifications of a since-retracted story about a Colorado election information postcard continued Wednesday, as Secretary of State Jena Griswold continued to try to correct the record after Colorado GOP Chairman and Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, continued to push for an investigation. Over the weekend, CBS4 Denver’s news director removed a story originally published last week that inaccurately claimed that a postcard sent to some people in Colorado asking them to vote, which went out to some people who are not citizens or are deceased, per the report, used the voter-roll mailing list used to send ballots out and was urging people to illegally register to vote.
The conflict began after a CBS4 Denver story over the weekend inaccurately suggested that a mailing list for mailers asking Coloradans to vote — a mailing list that included dead people — was connected to the same mailing list from which ballots are sent out. The article was amplified by conservative influencers before CBS4 News Director Tim Wieland took it off the station’s website Sunday and published a clarifying story Monday.
The original story, aired Friday on Denver’s CBS4, mistakenly suggested that a postcard sent earlier this month encouraging eligible voters to register ahead of the November election was connected to the state’s voter rolls and was somehow urging non-citizens and dead people to vote. CBS4 news director Tim Wieland pulled the story Sunday afternoon and replaced it later that night with an interview with Griswold meant to “[set] the record straight,” but not until after conservative news outlets and Republican personalities had blown up the misleading account across the internet.
Hello, anonymous friend. That misleading story was removed by the local news outlet that published it. What you’ve linked to is partisan regurgitation of reporting that the local news outlet no longer stands by.
It’s all quite a mess. And if today’s front page of The Denver Post is an indication, anything we might even learn from this might be a ways off. The reverberations seem far from over.
More reactions to non-Denver TV coverage of the postcards:
What makes this worse than the CBS Denver story (yeah I know) is that Southern Colorado doesn’t have the kind of press corps that will blow this thing back like Denver does. My bet is that this bad journalism will live forever. https://t.co/dd8qQxhibh
— Kara Mason (@karanormal) October 2, 2020
Yo. Colorado journalists.
Time to stop recycling the “postcards calling on dead people to vote” story.
Journalism is about facts and context. This story offers little of the former and none of the latter.
Do better. Please. For all of us who still want to have a job.
— Chris Vanderveen (@chrisvanderveen) October 2, 2020
📊 Axios is coming to Denver
Presented by: [Corporate advertisement here: Think a big oil-and-gas interest or telecom company]
Good morning: Today’s AM is 2,276 words, a who-knows-how-long read.
1 BIG THING: A new Denver-based newsletter
The inside-the-Beltway political news site Axios is going local, launching newsletters in four cities, including Denver, The Wall-Street Journal reports.
The big picture: Newsletters are the new thing for entrepreneurial journalism and Axios sees potential to rake in some revenue with a local brand. The news shows once again how much of an it city Denver is, and it’s another indication that out-of-state media companies see potential in monetizing the Mile High City’s young, educated, and well-off population. (Wave to everyone, Denverite.)
- The new thing is called Axios Local.
- These are the other cities: The WSJ reports Axios “plans to establish two-person newsletter teams in several local markets, starting with Minneapolis; Denver; Tampa, Fla.; and Des Moines, Iowa.”
- It will be daily. Expect “early morning newsletters to help readers get smarter, faster about their hometowns.”
Quotable: “This is a big bet — a bet that you can hook local readers on a daily basis with a morning newsletter and build up from there,’’ Jim VandeHei, the former POLITICO CEO and now Axios’s co-founder, told the WSJ. “It’s a risk worth taking because if we are right, it’s superscalable and part of a solution to the high-stakes local news puzzle.”
Why it matters: “Local reporters will deliver scoops, offer sharp insights and curate the best local reporting in our proven ‘Smart Brevity’ style,” Axios reports.
[Insert banner advertisement for Denver-based health-care company or brokerage firm here]
Between the lines: Does Axios believe there’s a niche they can fill for local journalism, or just money left on the table by Colorado-based entities who haven’t yet been properly propositioned by the development operations of existing publications? Also, who will the reporter(s) be?
The bottom line: Denver wins. Like the Broncos. And the Rockies. And weed and growth and hyper-targeted upwardly mobile demographically ready market-tested capacity builders. Millennially manicured, but old school. In the inbox. Every morning.
[Insert clickable call-to-action banner ad for whatever vanity project a multi-millionaire is working on who hasn’t been properly hit up yet by The Colorado Sun or Colorado Public Radio]
More Colorado local media odds & ends
📰John Wenzel asks: “As Suspect Press shuts down, are Colorado’s other free, indie magazines in danger of disappearing?”
⏸️Colorado’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jena Griswold, asked national media outlets to “Make NO projections on election night” and “Announce NO election results on election night.” She then put out a statement saying, “I would like to apologize for a tweet I put out earlier tonight. It was confusing, and the point I was trying to make was made inartfully.”
👀The Denver Post’s editor issued a front-page apology for a photo placement in the paper.
😬A CBS4 producer likened the station’s voter story SNAFU to The Denver Post mixing up Coors Field with Citizens Bank Park in Philly. “Forgot you guys never make mistakes,” he said.
🆕Welcome former Wyoming reporter Seth Klamann to The Denver Gazette.
⛰️Brian Calvert offered “some final thoughts” as he steps down as editor of High Country News.
🎒Dan Petty is stepping down as Denver Press Club president to pursue an MBA, he wrote in an email. “Current treasurer Kevin Vaughan has been elected president,” he added.
🗞️The Denver Post published a big special section on suicide.
🍺The Denver Press Club is also open again with limited hours.
🏛️Last week’s newsletter about Michael Bennet’s local news bill sparked some national coverage.
📱Yeah. What KUSA’s Chris Vanderveen said.
📹Rocky Mountain Public Media wants you to “learn more about the Native Lens project, hear directly from some of the NL team, and stick around for creative coaching on crafting stories & filming tips.”
🖊️Susan Greene of the Colorado News Collaborative asks: “What, under this administration, in this awful time, is a forced sense of journalistic fairness but a false and dangerous equivalency?”
⏰The Los Angeles Times says of itself: “For a large portion of our past,” the paper “was an institution deeply rooted in white supremacy.”
📚Get your nose in this book lovers’ guide to Colorado.
💼Denver’s 5280 magazine is “seeking a senior editor to join its award-winning staff.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly spelled the first name of Colorado’s current Secretary of State.