Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Nexis Nightmare

Magazine article American Journalism Review

The Nexis Nightmare

Article excerpt

How many members of the French Foreign Legion in Operation Desert Storm?

That seems like a natural enough request for a newspaper editor to ask a librarian. But requesting it 10 minutes before deadline won't win you any ends. Elizabeth Haworth, the Newsday researcher who had been asked to find the number, did the best she could: She phoned the French Foreign Legion, the French Embassy in Washington, even the Pentagon.

No luck. Everyone was gone for the day. Haworth glanced anxiously at the clock. She knew she could probably pull a number--any number--from a news database such as Nexis, but how reliable would it be? Despite her misgivings, she logged on and found a single citation that said 2,000 legion troops had been sent to Saudi Arabia.

She gave the editor the figure with a strong word of caution. "I told him I didn't think we should use it," she recalls.

The editor ignored her. The next day, Newsday stated that 2,000 French Legionnaires were in the Persian Gulf.

"On deadline, any newspaper in the country would have done the same thing--everybody operates this way," says Haworth, now a research consultant for Time Inc. "Maybe the figure was right, maybe it wasn't. No one knows."

Welcome to the Misinformation Explosion.

Fueled by the growing popularity of both commercial and in-house computerized news databases, journalists have found it that much easier to repeat errors or rely on the same tired anecdotes and experts.

That's not to say that mistakes never took on a life of their own before the electronic age, or that the same academics and analysts weren't quoted repeatedly. Sportswriters in particular have a rich tradition of turning apocryphal reports into legends. More recently, in a profile of music historian Nicolas Slonimsky, the New Yorker reported that his "horror of horrors was the inadvertent factual errors that, once born into print, refused to die, and indeed spread exponentially from one sourcebook to another, eternally. They haunted his sleep like vengeful wraiths."

Electronic morgues clearly offer major benefits to journalism, and in many ways they have revolutionized the craft. Their influence is so widespread, in fact, that there has been debate about whether journalism students should be required to learn database search methods as part of their coursework.

In the field, meanwhile, some reporters have become so enamored with resources such as Mead Data Central's Nexis that New York magazine recently noted the database "has begun to develop weird, source-like qualities of its own." (Nexis contains some 2,300 news sources and the capability to reduce 3.7 million pages of data to 110 pages of "hits" in less than 10 seconds. Often activists or journalists will carelessly cite the number of times a certain word appears in proximity to another word to support theories about the abundance or lack of coverage of particular topics.

Databases such as Nexis, Knight-Ridder's Dialog, Oklahoma Publishing's Data Times and Dow Jones News Retrieval also have encouraged the expansion of what might be called the Golden Modem. A short list of experts has the potential of becoming even shorter as journalists scan background articles pulled up with general search terms such as "health care" or "gun control." Spy once mocked the practice by quoting ubiquitous political analyst Norman Ornstein in every story of one issue, on subjects ranging from ambassadors to taxi surcharges. The original Spy is dead; Ornstein lives on (he's been cited in at least 80 stories during the past year, according to a Nexis search).

PERHAPS THE MOST IRRITATING effect that computerized morgues have had on reporting is the life they provide for errors. Consider the case of Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado. He was the politician quoted as saying the elderly "have a duty to die and get out of the way." But that wasn't all he said. …

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