Are we too hard on Brian Williams?

Brian Williams, a news anchor for NBC, has recently been suspended as a lead anchor for six months. He had misspoken on Jan. 30 about being in a helicopter that had been hit by a rocket while he was covering the Iraqi war back in the year 2003. While it is directly disrespectful to embellish this particular type of story -- and a suspension was warranted for it -- given what psychology tells us about storytelling, I don’t believe any further disciplinary action is required.

If he embellished any other topic I would be inclined to disagree with the suspension. However, I see this as disrespectful to our servicemen who have been through experiences like this. It may not have been his intention to do so and I can respect that.

I still believe Brian Williams is a funny anchor and a great storyteller. He’s also entertaining to watch on other televisions shows. There’s a reason why so many Americans love to watch him. I hope to see him back on the air after these six months of suspension.

According to the Washington Post, Brian Williams has appeared on shows such as “Ellen” and “Late Show with David Letterman” and “Saturday Night Live” 146 times from the year 2006 to 2011. He had also been the reporter covering Hurricane Katrina which earned the NBC a Peabody award.

Williams was the star of “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams,” which has now been changed to “NBC Nightly News.” According to Washington Post, the show was at one point “The nation’s top-rated newscast.”

The president of the network was uncertain about whether or not any other disciplines will take place, but I don’t think any further punishment is necessary. There have been several incidents where Williams has been found telling a great story with a fictional twist.

In a study called “Telling a Story or Telling it Straight: The Effects of Entertaining Versus Accurate Retellings on Memory,” psychologists Nicole Dudukovic, Elizabeth Marsh and Barbara Tversky gave participants a story to read over. Participants were randomly put into two categories – an entertainment condition and an accuracy condition. Each participant was given a written instruction to retell the story as entertaining as possible or to retell the story as accurately as possible.

In summary, the results of this particular study showed the retellings that were rated as more entertaining were also more often than not rated as less accurate compared to the original story.

So in retrospect, should we be so hard on Brian Williams for embellishing some stories? The rules of the Newsroom would tell us yes, the rules of entertainment would tell us no. The problem is, this psychological study tells us these two worlds tend to be negatively correlated. This means the more accurate a story is, the less entertaining it can be and vice versa.

After these six months go by I’m sure Williams will have learned his lesson about embellishing stories too much. I hope he can get his spot back on the air and can continue to tell great stories. Psychology says being both an accurate news reporter and an entertaining storyteller can be a difficult task, but if anyone can do it, Williams certainly can.

Disclaimer – I am not a psychologist. I am a student studying psychology at the undergraduate level.


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