Was Brian Williams’ mistake malicious, or an unintended consequence of experiencing traumatic events? (Photo: Getty Images)
On Wednesday, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams disclosed in an interview with Stars and Stripes that he was not, as he has long maintained, in a helicopter that was shot down in 2003 in Iraq during a reporting trip. In fact, the publication reported, he arrived about an hour later to the area, after the helicopters that were hit by the rockets had already made an emergency landing.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another,” Williams told Stars and Stripes.
Williams apologized on air, saying during that evening’s Nightly News broadcast, “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. I want to apologize.” He also wrote that “I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened. I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
Some insist Williams intentionally lied about being on the helicopter. But based on what is known in the research, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that his experience of traumatic events affected his memory. As he noted in his apology, the “constant viewing” of the footage of him “inspecting the impact area” could have, quite innocently, created a false memory.
Indeed, “Memory is best for events that follow a familiar pattern, so the chaos itself makes it difficult to establish a timeline and to remember specific details,” Art Markman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Texas, explained to Yahoo Health.
Sometimes, memories that emerge from traumatic experiences, such as war, can feel completely real to the individual experiencing them, whether they follow a factual account of the traumatic event or not.
“[W]e also know from several decades’ worth of research that people’s confidence in their memory is not a good predictor of the accuracy of that memory,” he saaid.
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Often, trauma experienced by journalists goes overlooked. Bruce Shapiro, the executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School, told Reuters that “the thinking was, we have to be tough to do this assignment, and if you can’t do that, get out of the kitchen.” As a result, Shapiro said, he has “talked to many journalists who’ve gotten derailed by psychological injuries. I have seen people who are no longer able to meet deadlines, who are haunted and wake up every night, and people who go the opposite direction and race toward danger.”
While Williams has not said that he has posttraumatic stress disorder, it’s a common side effect of covering war and other disturbing events. A study done by Finnish researchers in 2007 shows that many journalists experience PTSD more as a result of guilt than as a result of what they have actually experienced or seen, due to their presence at the scene as a reporter instead of as a first responder. Additionally, those covering wars are more likely to experience PTSD symptoms than those covering equally horrifying events like natural disasters or car accidents since “human evil is more difficult to stomach,” Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review.