ABC News Recycles Footage From 2004 Doc, Fails to Tell Viewers

By Alex Weprin 

On June 1, ABC News ran a special edition of “20/20” dubbed “SuperHumans!” The special looked at a number of individuals with unusual skills and abilities. One of those people, Daniel Tammet, may have looked a bit familiar to some eagle-eyed viewers. That is because portions of the “20/20” report were lifted from the 2004 British documentary, “Brainman,” including the impressive finale of the piece, which has Tammet learning Icelandic in just seven days.

ABC News had licensed the U.S. rights for clips to the documentary, but the piece made no mention of “Brainman,” or that some of the most compelling footage was six years old.

The section of the “20/20” report which sees Tammet learning Icelandic was particularly important, as it was picked up by “ABC World News” to promote the special. It also featured the most egregious error. In it, correspondent Nick Watt says of Tammet:


Not only are numbers a gift, but so are words. He knows eight languages, and we watched him pick up one more.

Unless Watt was referring to “watching” him do it while “watching” the documentary, that statement is not accurate.

ABC News acknowledged the error, telling TVNewser: “In the report we had said we watched Daniel Tammet learn the Icelandic language, when in fact Daniel’s trip was taken six years ago. We should have cited the documentary, and made crystal clear when it had been recorded, and we certainly apologize for the errors.”

The news of the deceptive piece was first reported by the media criticism program “Media Watch” on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the other ABC.

Martin Weitz, the producer of “Brainman,” told ABC’s “Media Watch” the “20/20” report was a “gross distortion of the facts.”

It is not unusual for news programs to use archival footage in reports, but when they do, it should be made clear. By not informing its audience that Tammet’s impressive feat took place six years earlier, and insinuating they shot the footage themselves, ABC News did its viewers a disservice.