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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Who woulda thunk it?

It looks like the feed is working, so on to regular business.

Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: What? We don't make mistakes! Like we were saying, the prime minister is actually a space alien...

This will probably come as no surprise to my readers, but I am a big fan of the few media analysts out there. We don't have any in Canada (the right-wing blogosphere doesn't count) but Jack Shafer of Slate is one of my favourites.

Shafer's recent column is about research into the number of errors in newspaper stories. This is shocking news to journalists, but no surprise to anyone else. Yesterday, Gene Weingarten discussed quote inaccuracies in his weekly chat on WaPo.com.

This got me thinking. Please allow me to speak directly to journalists on behalf of readers (the rest of you might want to avert your eyes briefly):

WE DON'T TRUST YOU. WE DON'T THINK YOU GET ANYTHING RIGHT. WE DON'T CALL YOU WITH CORRECTIONS BECAUSE WE DON'T EXPECT ANYTHING BETTER FROM YOU. WHEN WE DO CALL YOU TO ASK FOR A CORRECTION, YOU TRY TO CONVINCE US THAT THE ERROR IS OUR FAULT, NOT YOURS.

That felt good.

Most publications have a "Corrections" section. I read it every time I read a hard copy of any newspaper or magazine, because it is the funniest part of any publication. The section basically exists to pat the editor on the back: "Well, we got this one tiny thing wrong yesterday, but everything else was totally true!" There is almost never anything of any substance in it. They will fess up to spelling someone's name wrong or misidentifying someone in a photo, but not to getting all of the facts wrong.

Broadcast journalists, now, almost NEVER admit to getting anything wrong. There is no "corrections" section of a newscast. I'm not sure if this is better or worse. On one hand, at least they are not pretending that their mistakes are limited to misspelling a name; on the other hand, they are not even acknowledging their minor errors. In seven years of living here, I have only heard one honest-to-goodness correction on the local news. I don't think anyone would suggest that there has only been one error in all that time.

You see, factual errors are embarrassing to reporters. They don't want to admit that they get things wrong. I might suggest that the errors are far more embarrassing to the people they cover, but when you're dealing with the media, it's all about THEM. There are no "people", only "stories" to make editors happy. A really great (but inaccurate) story can lead to a promotion. Who cares if some regular Joe gets hurt along the way? Corrections make the reporter look bad!

Every few years a reporter will be caught making up stories (Jayson Blair being the most recent high-profile example). Journalists express shock, and the paper's editors are confused. If the stories were made up, why didn't anyone complain? You see, editors believe that unless someone calls to complain, the story is entirely accurate. When you call to complain, they will insist that you prove that they made a mistake. Then they will blame you for the error: you must have misled them!

This is entirely backwards. It shouldn't be up to you to prove that the reporter's crazy ideas are wrong. It should be up to the reporter to prove that he's right.

1 comments:

Miss Lyndsy said...

How utterly true that we don't trust reporters anymore. In high school I dreamed being part of a revolution to improve the reputation of journalists everywhere; I wanted new ethical standards, dammit. Buuut when a classmate said he would report, photograph, or skew anything for the right price the ideal started to fade.