When journalists get it wrong…
2 years ago my assistant, La Toya, sent a press release to a young reporter at one of the daily newspapers.
Our client, the Managing Director of a new hotel, said that the reporter had called several times for an interview that they had developed a rapport and she would be the best person to whom we should send the release.
Typically, I would have cautioned against going with anyone new (this particular reporter had just finished her internship with the newspaper) but this was a press release announcement giving facts on the hotel’s progress. There were questions about its late opening and budget overruns.
Should have been simple enough,
Except that on the day we opened the newspaper, the press release became an article with every single quote ascribed to my assistant, La Toya, whose only role was to press the send button with her email signature at the bottom for inquires.
We were mad. The client, well, he was livid.
When we called and asked for ( and yes after 2 days passed, demanded ) a corrected version we were told by an obviously embarrassed reporter that the editor said no. La Toya’s email address was at the bottom of the release, this particular editor assumed (incorrectly) that the quotes had come from her. "Next time don’t do that," we were told.
Everything between the client and my firm went downhill from there. I would go so far to say we lost a valuable contract because an editor refused to admit that she got it wrong.
It’s unfortunate, but I have several stories like that. Stories where reporters and editors neglect correction requests with little consequence. Where the buck stops with one person and you have little or no recourse to appeal.
I know that minor errors in the news are part and parcel of journalism with its rushed deadlines, understaffed newsrooms and sometimes an over zealous need to create a headline with more sizzle then substance. But what happens when what is being reported is so wrong, (and I am not talking about a typo in a name or a puntuation mistake ) and the the “oh oh we blew it” is so serious that the small square retraction box buried under the weather box on Page 3 does not quite seem to suffice.
Scott Maier, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication writes on the Poynter website" that a better rule of thumb is needed for reporters who get the big picture and the small facts wrong.
Here’s some statistics from Maier’s research on corrections by the media.
“Industry and scholarly research have documented time and time again that errors in the news media are disturbingly common. The largest accuracy audit, a recent study that Philip Meyer and I conducted of 22 newspapers, found an error rate among the highest in seven decades of accuracy research: over 59 percent of local news and feature stories were found by news sources to have at least one error.
"In nearly the same proportion, news sources identified ‘subjective errors’ — information considered technically correct but misleading," Maier said.
"But these errors of meaning were what news sources found most egregious — and measurably damaging to media credibility.”
Of the people Maier surveyed, only one in 10 informed newspapers about errors.
“Many said they thought the inaccuracies were inconsequential. But some wondered why they should bother reporting errors and assumed newspapers wouldn’t respond. When asked to review stories for accuracy, news sources found factual errors in about every other news and feature story.”
I am not sure what the answers are: opportunities for the wronged party to give another view of the story, a corrected headline that circumvents the wrong one, deleting an article if published on the web, tying correction rates to performance evaluations of reporters. Or may be it really lies in taking the time to recheck the work sentence by sentence, and thereafter hold reporters and editors accountable for mistakes.
We hold journalists to a higher standard than most other professionals. We are told, and know it is human to err but I think when newsrooms refuse to admit error, when they set themselves up to be the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, true or false, that’s when the very foundation of begins to crumble.