COLUMN - In defense of journalistic error

Tue Apr 23, 2013 10:57am EDT

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his own.)

By Jack Shafer

April 23 (Reuters) - 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. crewing up has been integral to the reporting of timely news for a long time , no matter how sterling a news organization's standards, as a 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.

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.

Much has been made this week - and during breaking-news episodes in Tucson, Newtown, Abbottabad, Mumbai and elsewhere, where many errors were filed and published - of how modern technology places unprecedented pressures on reporters and their employers to be first to report some important news.

But a light reading of journalistic history refutes the notion that the gathering of breaking news in the pre-Web, pre-mobile-phone era was a leisurely affair.

In 1935, Associated Press reporters covering the trial of the alleged kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby famously sent the wrong verdict in a "flash" to its subscribers. The AP report was aired on radio before its retraction, and was even printed in the Washington Post, although that edition did not make it onto the streets.

Last week, Politico cited other examples of botched breaking stories you can't blame on the Web, including the "death" of President George H.W. Bush in Japan in 1992 and the reported death of White House Press Secretary James Brady during the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

More egregious breaking news errors were made after the 9/11 attacks by established news organizations, including a car bombing at the State Department (AP), reports of explosives on the George Washington Bridge (CBS News) and news that a second wave of terrorists at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports had been intercepted (ABC News).

The news landscape has changed, of course. "News gathering and dissemination are now simultaneous," says Christopher Daly, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter at the Associated Press and the Washington Post. He concurs with the view that the technological tools that make instant reporting so easy and seductive also expand a reporter's power to verify stories via email, mobile phone calls, text, chat, database searchers and more.

Those news tools also make recalling a fallacious story easier than ever. It's much to CNN's disgrace, as David Carr and others have commented, that the network didn't rely on those tools to make a greater effort to publicly acknowledge its bogus arrested report instead of "rowing it back." CNN could have, for example, placed "retraction" flags on its websites and run Chyrons directing views to the Web for corrections of John King's now-famous reportorial error.

The news landscape has also been altered by readers and viewers who've adopted the new technologies. No longer passive recipients of the news, they talk back to the press as never before, putting additional pressure on the press corps to get it right and to untangle the news pretzel they've baked. And that's wonderful. As the Washington Post's former publisher, Philip L. Graham, was fond of repeating, journalism is the first rough draft of history. Tough readers who demand more and better from journalists help drive errors down and correction rates up, helping improve the second rough draft of history.

For those late to the story, I've already spanked the New York Post in a column last week.

(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics.) (Jack Shafer)

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