This Just In: The Factors Behind Newspapers' Rush to Contrition

Article excerpt

To judge from this year's rash of apologetic postmortems, American newspapers are a very sorry bunch.

The New York Times acknowledged downplaying skepticism about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. USA Today explored how it let a top foreign correspondent fool editors for years with fake reports. Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story that said the newspaper's prewar coverage "in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times." And, perhaps most amazingly, a Kentucky newspaper in July admitted that it had virtually failed to cover the civil rights movement.

Some of this, of course, is damage control in an era when the news media are struggling to restore faltering credibility with readers. But beyond that, there's a debate over what this trend signifies - a mere bout of self-analysis that amounts to navel- gazing, or a break with the newspaper industry's tradition of considering itself above reproach. "We have a culture of thinking that we're always right," says Arlene Morgan, associate dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In reality, of course, newspapers make plenty of blunders, from confusing actress Angelica Huston's last name with the largest city in Texas to declaring that President Bush carried a fake turkey to soldiers in Iraq last Thanksgiving. (He didn't.)

Readers notice the errors. In 1999, a landmark industry report found that nearly a quarter of newspaper readers surveyed discovered factual errors in newspapers each week; 73 percent said they'd become more skeptical of media accuracy. Then, last year, the credibility of the press fell even further when alert journalists began exposing colleagues who fabricated and plagiarized their stories.

In a world where Jayson Blair became fodder for a David Letterman Top 10 list, it's perhaps not surprising that The New York Times, in particular, has been sensitive about mistakes. Among other things, it hired a reader's representative who promptly annoyed staffers with a series of critical columns.

In addition to postscandal damage control, there's another factor in the growing list of mea culpas, according to Geneva Overholser, faculty member at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Internet, she says, gives critics a louder voice than they had in the past, when they needed access to a printing press to spread their opinions across the country. "Each of these criticisms is far more powerful than it used to be," she says, "and in turn causes newspapers to feel more compelled to be transparent. That is a good thing."

Otto von Bismarck famously said that it's best not to see how laws or sausages are made - and some say the chaotic inner workings of newspapers shouldn't get a public airing, either. …

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