Monday, December 10, 2012

Getting It Wrong - "The Era of Error"?

Paul Farhi has an interesting and troubling piece in the latest American Journalism Review - Mistaken Nation, about the growing problem of errors in journalism.  He starts with a tale of one big story that turned out to be only half right.  In 2007, Ben Smith, at then start-up Politico, got a tip from a trusted source that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had returned, and as a result John Edwards was going to withdraw from the 2008 Presidential race at a scheduled press conference later that day.  Politico went with the story, and created a modest media firestorm.  At the Edwards presser, he confirmed his wife's relapse, but announced he was staying in the race.
"It was a really awful moment, personally," Smith recalled, adding he saw no clear lesson from the event, although his credibility might have taken a hit.  No lesson? How about this - don't make predictions based on a single unverified source; people can change their minds.
  American journalism students are weened on the apochryphal "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline in the Chicago Tribune missing the call of the 1948 Presidential election.  Blamed on deadline pressures and a printer's strike, the rush to get the big story first is still an embarrassment for the venerable daily.  And for all the emphasis j-schools place on getting it right, once in the real world the focus seems to shift to getting it first, often at the expense of accuracy.
In addition, the capacity to review and verify is shrinking with the decline of copy editors.  A press that still reflexively and arrogantly proclaims its accuracy and veracity as the product of "layers and layers of editors and fact checkers" has laid off most of them.
  Scholars have been looking at the issue of accuracy and errors in news reporting for more than a half century - and in one of the biggest and most recent, found that more than 60% of local news and feature stories contained errors.
The reported inaccuracies included the relatively trivial and objective kind — misspellings, incorrect ages, titles and dates, etc. — to the more profound and subjective, such as misleading or distorted quotes, the omission of information or the overplaying of inconsequential facts (read: hype).
That study also found a correlation between the amount of errors and source's perception of the newspaper's reputation, and their willingness to cooperate with the paper's staff in the future.  Farhi concludes "errors not only hurt the newspaper's reputation, they damaged the media's working relationship with the very people they cover."
  And it's not just sources that notice errors and find that they damage credibility.  Gallup and Pew have regular tracking polls on the credibility of various news sources in the U.S. - and the number that find them to be generally credible keeps declining.  (here's recent posts on Gallup and Pew numbers).  Only about one in four (or less) feel that news generally gets their facts straight, and more see reporting as favoring one side and influenced by the powerful.  This should be a big problem for news organizations - after all, the value of news (as journalism) is directly tied to perceptions of its accuracy and veracity; to borrow a common claim among news outlets - "News You Can Trust."
   If you can't trust it, all that's left is a story's entertainment value.  While that may keep the readers and viewers happy and bring in the revenues, it's not what makes journalism the "Fourth Estate."
  After a few more anecdotes about "mistakes" large and small, Farhi brings the discussion to the confounding factor of the Internet.  The speed and reach of the Internet certainly makes it easier to compound errors, and certainly makes it easier and faster for people to note the errors.  You'd think that it would also speed and facilitate the ability of reporters to check and verify at least some of the more straightforward mistakes, but there's a bit of a problem there.  Reporters have to acknowledge that there may be mistakes - and most are loath to do so.  Another study from 2007 found that reporters and news organizations are reluctant to acknowledge errors.
News sources noticed lots of errors in the newspapers' stories... but they rarely complained about them. When they did, the response was about the same as if they hadn't bothered. Of the 130 cases in which a source informed the newspaper about an alleged error, the newspapers ran a correction only four times.
   Another issue is the rise of pack journalism, a groupthink mentality that almost rises to cult status - or in academic terms, the building of self-reinforcing memes that seems to create a truth that really never was.
As it happens, some of the greatest myths perpetrated by the media are about the media itself. One popular notion is that CBS News anchorman Edward R. Murrow's famous "See It Now" broadcasts in the 1950s "brought down" Sen. Joe McCarthy, the communist-hunting demagogue. Another is that President Lyndon B. Johnson concluded that he could not win reelection after another legendary CBS anchorman, Walter Cronkite, declared in 1968 that the Vietnam War was "mired in stalemate." Still another is that the press, particularly Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post, drove President Richard M. Nixon from office in 1974 with a relentless stream of revelations about the Watergate scandal.
These tales have been told so many times (often by journalists) that they seem true. But each is a case study in what satirist Stephen Colbert labeled "truthiness" — a statement having an emotional foundation or the ring of truth but with little or no evidence to support it. Each of these myths is dismantled in W. Joseph Campbell's 2010 book, "Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism," which demonstrates the self-reinforcing power of mistakes. 
 It's something I see a lot of, both among my students and among the journalism profession - a belief that all you need is one source that backs you up, particularly if that source is from a "trusted" news source.  And, incredibly, even after that "trusted" news source has issued a correction, most will rely on that first report that reinforces the meme and their beliefs. Farhi provides some additional anecdotes, including one from his own past about a missing footnote.
   Farhi wonders if "this may be a Golden Age of non-facts, the Era of Error."  I'd like to think that the reporting's not gotten so biased or sloppy that it's a fundamental problem.  It's pretty clear that the changes in the media landscape has increased the pressure to get the story out quickly, and that economic pressures have reduced the "layers" of fact-checking and copy-editing.  I'd also make the argument that the Internet's given those errors and mistakes that are made greater exposure, and eliciting more, and more public, challenges.  In other words, errors, and news organizations' reactions to errors, are more visible and public - and that most organizations haven't come to grips with that reality, retaining their fundamental belief that as journalists, they're more likely to be right than their readers and viewers are.  Which is not always the case. 
   All these factors compound the impact of journalistic errors and mistakes - continuing the decline in the public's trust of news media.

   Anyway, the article's worth a read.

Source  -  Mistaken NationAmerican Journalism Review

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