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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I had a nice conversation with a reporter this morning.

There was a factual error on the news. Not a huge one, and not something that would have been obvious to the average Joe, but an error nonetheless.

I called the newsreader.

Now, these situations are fraught with peril. You see, reporters pride themselves on getting facts right. You would think that this would make them anxious to correct errors. You would be wrong. This type of conversation usually ends in an argument: the reporter will try to convince you that you are wrong and he is right, but if he is wrong, it is your fault for misleading him. (None of this is a joke.)

So I was a little hesitant to call. Still, I thought it was important.

I called the newsreader and introduced myself. She knows who I am: we've had a friendly professional relationship for several years now. I have a little routine that I use in these situations. It boils down to this:

  • Be cheerful and polite.
  • Never say "You got it wrong". Instead, say something like this: "There is a factual error in the story about dogs. The error is the part where you described the process for putting the animals down. We don't actually shoot them in the middle of the street. Instead, a vet injects them with a drug that stops their hearts."
  • Don't ask for a retraction unless the mistake is really serious. Reporters get upset when you suggest that you want a retraction. They take it personally, and it gets them in trouble with their bosses. Instead, ask the reporter to make sure the error doesn't end up in future stories.
This only works when you don't call about every little thing or act like reporters shouldn't cover dissenting opinions.

I am really pleased to say that this call went well and the error did not appear in the next newscast. Knowing how newsrooms work, I am fairly sure that the newsreader did not write this particular story and had no idea that there was a mistake in it.

When Jayson Blair was caught plagiarizing and making up details in the New York Times, there was a lot of shock among journalists. In particular, I remember that they could not believe that none of the people in the stories had ever complained. You see, all of the people who were featured in the stories knew they had never talked to a New York Times reporter. They knew that details were wrong. They knew he was a fake. And nobody ever called the editor.

Journalists couldn't believe this. Their industry was all about facts! People are supposed to call to correct errors! How could this have happened?

I had gone over to the dark side by then, and didn't have the heart to tell my former colleagues the awful truth when they talked about this: Nobody believes you anyway. They expect you to get things wrong. They don't call to complain because they don't expect anything better from you. When they do call to complain, you try to convince them that THEY are the ones who got it wrong.

I remember reading about a family (Jessica Lynch's family, I think) who read about themselves in the Times and laughed about how completely wrong the story was: it contained made-up quotes and invented details about what their house supposedly looked like. They later told the Times that they thought this was normal for reporters, so they didn't think there would be any point in complaining.

I like most reporters. I really do. And it was nice to have a conversation instead of an argument about keeping the news accurate. This must be why I like the CBC.