Opinion

Jack Shafer

In defense of journalistic error

Jack Shafer
Apr 22, 2013 22:23 UTC

Hilary Sargent, who does business on the Web as Chart Girl, compiled the best early guide to the journalistic mistakes made on the afternoon of April 17, as broadcasters and wire services moved their conflicting and error-studded reports about the status of the Boston Marathon bombing dragnet. At least eight news organizations — including the Boston Herald, the Associated Press, CNN and local station WCVB-TV — reported that either an arrest had either been made or was imminent.

These bulletins were, of course, proved wrong quickly. By the weekend, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan was crowing about the home team’s errorless Boston performance in her column. With uncharacteristic swagger, Sullivan wrote that the paper’s performance upheld its “reputation as journalism’s gold standard,” a comment likely to be shoved back in her face several times before her public editorship ends.

Without question, the Times deserves credit for avoiding rank errors in its Boston coverage, as do the scores of other outlets that fielded the story without booting the ball. But as anybody who has worked in a newsroom can tell you, reportorial diligence is never sufficient to prevent a news organization from misreporting stories. News, especially breaking news, has always been a difficult thing to report accurately. If you examine the news product closely, you’ll discover a vein of feldspar running through even the shiniest gold standard.

Journalists don’t need to dip into a box labeled “Half-truths and Innuendo” to make mistakes: Screwing up has been integral to the reporting of timely news for a long time , no matter how sterling a news organization’s standards, as this recent American Journalism Review feature by Paul Farhi documents. In 2002, the last year for which I have collected the numbers, the gold-standard Times confessed to 2,867 corrections, compared with the Washington Post‘s 1,006 and the Chicago Tribune‘s 678. In all likelihood, the Times error count soared because 1) it routinely addresses more difficult stories; 2) has more intelligent readers around the world probing its stories for goofs; and 3) has for more than a decade made the error-correction process easier than other outlets, such as the Washington Post, whose ombudsman, Michael Getler, accused the Post of institutional suppression of corrections in a 2003 column (paid).

Error tallies, such as the one above, don’t demonstrate that news reporting is a particularly error-prone enterprise but that the business and its customers have come to an unspoken agreement of how perfect the news product must be. Near-perfect news could be printed and broadcast if reports were vetted and peer-reviewed for weeks or months before publication. But readers desire timely “journalism in lieu of dissertation,” to pinch Edgar Allan Poe‘s succinct phrase, and willingly accept a certain level of error as long as the news organizations readily acknowledge their mistakes. Most of us accept minuscule failure rates when buying a new car or refrigerator, knowing that some will fail us in surprising and unpredictable ways. Likewise, we make a similar bargain at the dinner table, accepting low levels of mercury and arsenic in the food we eat and the water we drink, as long we’re kept informed and the low levels do not cause illness.

Newtown teaches us, once again, to discount early reports

Jack Shafer
Dec 17, 2012 22:28 UTC

“It’s inevitable that some first reports will be wrong,” Dan Rather warned viewers on Sept. 11, 2001, as he and his colleagues at CBS covered terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in real time.

Before the day was over, CBS had confirmed the Rather maxim by launching several very wrong reports into the ether. Rather and colleagues reported that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department in Washington; that a United Airlines flight had “crashed into the vicinity of or at Camp David”; and that the FBI had arrested two people in a truck with explosives near New York’s George Washington Bridge. “Enough explosives were in the truck to do great damage to the George Washington Bridge,” Rather would go on to say. It wasn’t just CBS muffing the story. NBC News repeated the George Washington Bridge story (before taking it back), and NPR and ABC News reported the nonexistent State Department bomb, with ABC News citing senior law enforcement officials and the Associated Press.

None of these doozies turned out to be true, of course, making a sage of sorts out of Rather. If only we had had him on the air to warn us last Friday, as the networks, newswires and newspapers reported on the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre. Among the firstest and the wrongest on the story was CNN. At 11:17 a.m. on Friday, @CNN tweeted, “CNN’s @SusanCandiotti reports the suspect is Ryan Lanza and is in his 20s,” and Candiotti repeated the finding on air shortly after 2 p.m. with a caveat that the information came from a source and that it had “not been confirmed by the state police.”

Serving up the Supreme Court dough before it’s baked

Jack Shafer
Jun 28, 2012 21:07 UTC

Go ahead and ridicule CNN and Fox News Channel for fumbling the Supreme Court ruling (pdf) in the Affordable Care Act case today by reporting that the law had been struck down. If news organizations are going to crow about their breaking news scoops – Bloomberg News is bragging that it beat Reuters to the court’s decision by 12 seconds – they must submit to vigorous fanny-whackings whenever they perpetrate “Dewey Defeats Truman”-style mistakes. Tweets from the Huffington Post’s politics section, Time, and NPR got it wrong, too.

At least CNN and Fox only got it wrong one way. The Chicago Sun-Times erred at least four ways, posting to one Web page last night its preliminary coverage and headlines – ”Supreme Court strikes down health care law,” “Supreme Court waters down health care law,” and “Supreme Court upholds health care law,” and “Supreme Court XXXX Obama health law.” To be fair to the Sun-Times, every news organization pre-bakes as much coverage as it can when covering court decisions, elections, conventions and other scheduled news events. They write obituaries of the famous and old before they die. Pre-baking isn’t restricted to journalists. Even President Barack Obama stockpiled multiple speeches to cover three possible outcomes, he’s just lucky that he didn’t give the wrong one.

I suppose you could toss out my preconception theory and blame the errors on the continual acceleration of the news and the increasing pressure to get it first. But then you’d have to explain why Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Associated Press, and Dow Jones got it right inside the same instant news cycle.

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