(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist but his opinions are his
By Jack Shafer
April 23 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
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
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
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