Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why Journalists Make Mistakes & What We Can Do About Them

Poynter Online
The Chicago Tribune's infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, the 2000 election night calls for Al Gore and then George Bush, a 2004 Providence Journal headline that said, "Rumsfeld's Pubic Role is Shrinking."

These mistakes reflect the reality that, as hard as we try to get the facts right, sometimes we get them wrong. Our fallibility is the subject of journalist Kathryn Schulz's new book, "Being Wrong," which looks at how human error can transform our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.

Curious about how Schulz's findings relate to journalism, I talked with her about:
  • The need for corrections that address the range of errors journalists make.
  • How the provisional nature and accelerated pace of journalism can lead to error.
  • Reasons news organizations don't correct most of their mistakes -- and what they can learn from them.
Need for corrections that address a spectrum of errors

Kathryn Schulz
Misspelled names and typos are among the more basic errors journalists make. But there's another type of error that is harder to correct: when journalists miss the story completely.

"You can do all the legwork of saying 'We spelled Kathryn Schulz's name wrong,' but that doesn't get you anywhere near the deep and substantive wrongness that we sometimes commit in the field," Schulz said by phone. "We have this formalized mechanism for dealing with very small errors, and they're not necessarily trivial, but we don't have any mechanism whatsoever for 'Oops, we blew it, we missed the entire point' types of errors."

The Lexington Herald-Leader is an unusual example. The paper ran a clarification in 2004, saying "It has come to our attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the Civil Rights movement. We regret the omission." And back in 1969, a day after Apollo 11 launched, The New York Times ran a correction saying it retracted a 1920 editorial that had argued space flight was impossible.

It's not always enough to just write a sentence or two explaining that we've erred, says Schulz.
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