Magazine article American Journalism Review

Mistaken Nation: With the Relentless Pressure to Move Quickly in the Era of the Twitter-Fueled 24/7 News Cycle, It's Probably Not Surprising That There Are So Many High-Profile Journalism Errors. All the More Reason to Double-And Triplecheck before Pulling the Trigger

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Mistaken Nation: With the Relentless Pressure to Move Quickly in the Era of the Twitter-Fueled 24/7 News Cycle, It's Probably Not Surprising That There Are So Many High-Profile Journalism Errors. All the More Reason to Double-And Triplecheck before Pulling the Trigger

Article excerpt

In journalism, as in real life, stuff happens. It happened to Ben Smith on March 22, 2007. that morning, Smith, then a crack reporter and blogger at Politico, got a dynamite tip: John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, would be announcing the suspension of his campaign for the 2008 presidential nomination at a press conference that afternoon. the decision, Smith's source said, was precipitated by his wife's health. Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had recurred.

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Smith knew and trusted his source; as he wrote later, the source spoke with "authority and detail" about Elizabeth Edwards' condition. But just one source? With Edwards' press conference mere hours away, Smith consulted his editors. Go with it, they decided.

Politico, just two months old, put Smith's story on its home page under a bold, declarative headline: "Edwards to Suspend Campaign." The scoop predictably lit up the media landscape. The Drudge Report headlined it with a siren. Smith did three radio interviews. TV stories followed.

Many reporters know the weightless, slightly sickening feeling of what came next. It's like the moment when the cartoon character, having run full throttle off the edge of the cliff into midair, realizes he is about to plummet to the canyon floor.

At the ensuing press conference, Edwards indeed announced that his wife's cancer had returned. But he also said her condition wasn't sufficiently dire to suspend his campaign. Contrary to Smith's story, he was staying in. "It was a really awful moment, personally," recalls Smith, who went on to become editor of BuzzFeed. Reflecting on his mistake, he adds, "As with so many moments in reporting, I don't take a single clear lesson from this. But credibility is the coin of the realm, and I could feel the hit mine took with this."

He's right about being wrong, of course. In a perfect world, we'd all report with unerring accuracy, quote with symphonic fidelity and write with the grammar, syntax and spelling of an Oxford English lit professor. But it doesn't work like that. Mistakes happen--and they hurt not just an individual reporter and his or her publication but the media's reputation as a whole. Read on; I speak from experience.

Public trust in the news media has been falling for decades, and inaccuracies--perceived or otherwise--are a big part of the reason. Just 25 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year said news organizations generally get their facts straight; 66 percent said stories are "often inaccurate." Only four years earlier, 39 percent viewed the media as mostly accurate; 53 percent said the opposite.

Mistakes have been a part of journalism since long before "Dewey Defeats Truman." But even with better and faster tools to check information, it's hard to argue that accuracy is improving. Deadline pressure in the era of the 24/7 news cycle is relentless, and many reporting staffs are smaller than in the past. Plus, there are fewer safety nets--editors and copy editors--to catch reporters when they misstep. News organizations are keen to fact-check the statements of politicians, but they might consider putting their own houses in better order as well.

In fact, this may be a Golden Age of non-facts, the Era of Error. In one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of journalistic inaccuracy, academics Scott Maier and Philip Meyer found that reporting errors were at their highest level in the 70 years such research has been conducted. Maier and Meyer went right to the source, or rather the sources, to draw this conclusion. They asked some 4,800 sources cited in 400 stories carried by 14 newspapers whether the stories about them were accurate. Answer: Not very often. The sources reported errors in 61 percent of news and feature stories, the highest defect rate since studies of this kind began in the 1930s. …

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