Call it outsourcing at its worst.
It started on Monday with a huge photo of celebrity-status Jacksonville weatherman Tim Deegan above the headline, “Florida man kept three women as sex slaves, police say.”
The story was accurate, but the photo was wrong — very, very wrong. The alleged sex-slave keeper was in fact another Timothy Deegan, a 53-year-old certified public accountant who lives in Gainesville. But it was the 54-year-old First Coast News meteorologist whose picture adorned the story. Readers were quite understandably shocked.
It didn’t take long for the conspiracy theories to sprout like weeds on social media: “Action News should be the source from which apologies should be flowing,” one Facebook poster wrote. “It is inconceivable to believe that the local Fox affiliate did not recognize the photo they ‘accidently’ published and knew it was the wrong person.”
That story, which originated in the Gainesville Sun, had been circulated by the Associated Press, but only Action News ran the wrong photo — a fact that fueled the speculation: Perhaps Action News, which itself recently made headlines for unloading several anchors after hitting the local ratings basement, was having some fun with its competition, or maybe worse.
But that wasn’t remotely the case, says Action News news director Bob Longo. Nobody in-house touched that post before it went live. Instead, the article was posted directly to Action News’ website by an out-of-state content provider, Inergize Digital, with whom the local TV station had contracted.
The mistake apparently happened because Inergize searched public records for a Timothy Deegan. The mug shot of Jacksonville’s Deegan was on file because of his Nov. 2 DUI arrest, which was resolved in December when he was placed on probation and agreed to surrender his driver’s license for six months (a crime that tends to garner considerably less public approbation than trafficking in sex).
The story was posted on June 16, between 2 and 2:30 p.m., when the station’s staff was in planning meetings and between newscasts. The station received a quick notification from a reader about the error, and staff immediately went to work to fix it, Longo says. (The photo was not broadcast on air).
To do so, however, they had to go through Inergize, the Minnesota-based company that posted the photo. After Action News personnel contacted Inergize, Deegan’s photograph was replaced with a stock photo of a jail cell — and a correction apologizing for Inergize’s mistake. The erroneous photo was only up for less than 15 minutes, Longo says.
But in the Internet age, the damage was already done. People on social media pages immediately reposted the story with weatherman Deegan’s photo, and it was out there, in the ether, forever.
“This is a horribly unfortunate error,” Longo told Folio Weekly Wednesday. “What happened two days ago, it’s the way most TV and newspapers and business organizations work these days,” referring to the use of outside contractors.
Longo says his staff covers all local news stories in-house, but Action News used Inergize Digital for some out-of-town stories. He adds that his network had even covered the Gainesville sex-slave case a week earlier, and reported the story accurately.
“Everybody feels horrible about it. You can’t take it back,” Longo says. “All you can do is fix the error as quickly as possible.”
Inergize, which describes itself on its website as “a comprehensive ecosystem for branding, providing content and delivering revenue for media companies,” took full responsibility for the mistake, according to the correction. Action News ended its relationship with Inergize at 3 p.m. Wednesday, almost exactly 48 hours after the screw-up, though Longo says the change was planned well before.
No one at Inergize Digital could be reached for comment late Wednesday.
In the aftermath, there are no hard feelings between the news networks. Spokesmen for both attributed it to the hazards of outsourcing and the inevitable errors that occur in journalism. (FCN’s Deegan did not return phone calls.)
Longo says the station has done everything it could to resolve the mess.
Once the error was corrected, Longo got on the phone to FCN general manager Eric Land and profusely apologized. Longo says he also called Deegan directly and left a message, but had not heard back from him by late Wednesday.
Land, in turn, says Longo showed responsibility in the way he handled the situation.
“It’s unfortunate that errors happen in the news business and it’s important to recognize errors and correct them immediately,” Land says. “What I’d say is that [Longo and his network] reacted appropriately when they discovered that an error was made, and we appreciate that level of class that they exhibited by calling to apologize.”