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ABC News Takes Sheriff’s Quote Out Of Context In Colorado Wildfires Report

A report on the devastating Colorado wildfires on last night’s ‘ABC World News with Diane Sawyer” took comments from a local undersheriff out of context, and may have mislead viewers into thinking arson was the likely culprit behind the flames.

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Sawyer previewed the segment by saying “Tonight ABC News has learned that arson could be to blame” for the fires, throwing to a packaged story from reporter Alex Perez.

Perez said “The FBI and local authorities have yet to pinpoint what started the wild fire, but in an exclusive interview the county undersheriff tells us investigators believe this was arson,” featuring a brief clip of undersheriff Paula Presley saying “This in many ways is a type of terrorism, where someone is trying to destroy an entire city.”

In a statement, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department took issue with the report: “The comments that ABC chose to air during the broadcast were taken out of context and misrepresented the facts. The cause of this fire is not yet known.” The full statement is after the jump.

ABC News said in a statement: “The introduction to the report notes that arson ‘could be to blame’ and the report says clearly that ‘FBI and local authorities have yet to pinpoint what started the wild fire.’ The rest of the report should have been consistent. We regret this and a full transcript of the sheriff’s remarks has been posted online and our subsequent report on GMA clarified this further.”

The full transcript of the interview shows that Presley repeatedly said that the origin of the fire needs to be investigated before any conclusions can be drawn. The closest she came to suggesting arson could be to blame was this statement:

“Certainly we can’t really speculate, we can’t say exactly what happened what the cause of this was but anytime we have a fire of undetermined origin, we’re going to treat it as an arson. To investigate it. To ensure that it is thoroughly investigated and we get to the point of the origin and make sure that either rule out arson or determine that it is arson and continue the investigation from that point on.”

El Paso County Sheriff’s Department statement:

On June 28, 2012, Undersheriff Paula Presley participated in an interview with ABC News (National) which aired this evening. The comments that ABC chose to air during the broadcast were taken out of context and misrepresented the facts. The cause of this fire is not yet known. Speaking hypothetically, Undersheriff Presley stated IF this were an act of arson and the suspect’s intent were to burn the forest and set fire to Colorado Springs, then it could be considered an act of domestic terrorism. She reiterated that we do not yet know the cause and whether or not it was accidental or intentional.

Again, the cause of this fire has not been determined. Our Office, along with other local, State, and Federal agencies have dedicated resources to sift through the information that has come in as well as follow up on investigative leads. To state whether this event began as a result of an intentional act, accidental act, or through natural causes cannot be identified until a determination is made by investigators.

From the ABC News transcript of the full interview:

Alex Perez: In a situation like this, what makes you guys think that this was possibly arson or could be arson?

Paula Presley: Where it started and the day that this fire began we didn’t have any storms. You know, there had been some started the previous week and the weeks prior to that from lightening. On that particular day there were no reports of lightening so that was something that we-certainly we haven’t ruled anything out at this point in time but it’s not believe to be the case. So certainly we can’t really speculate, we can’t say exactly what happened what the cause of this was but anytime we have a fire of undetermined origin, we’re going to treat it as an arson. To investigate it. To ensure that it is thoroughly investigated and we get to the point of the origin and make sure that either rule out arson or determine that it is arson and continue the investigation from that point on.

Alex Perez: As the undersheriff, and as somebody that calls this place home, how important is it to you that we find out what happened here?

Paula Presley: It’s critical. If this was an arson, this was intentionally set, we absolutely need to um to determine that as quickly as possible and find the person and hold them accountable for that. You know, when we talk about, you know, terrorist activity you know this in many ways is a type of terrorism where somebody is trying to destroy you know, an entire city, essentially.

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