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.