New York Times to Thomas Friedman: We won’t fix your error

Recently Hal Espen, formerly the editor of Outside magazine, posted an error report on MediaBugs concerning a 2009 column by Thomas Friedman on the politics of climate change. Friedman’s apparent mistake was reporting that the first President Bush had signed the Rio Treaty in 1993 — part of an argument Friedman was promoting that, historically speaking, “Republicans can claim as much credit for America’s environmental leadership as Democrats.”

Espen noted that he had written to the Times about the error several times but never got a response. We followed up and arrived at a somewhat baffling result: Friedman himself says he agrees the column should be corrected. The Times says it does not intend to fix it. The error will continue to sit in its digital archive, untouched. Here’s how the situation unfolded:

Over the course of a week in mid August we corresponded by email about the bug report with two editors at the Times as well as with Friedman. Complicating matters was the fact that Friedman’s role as an op-ed columnist means that his work is handled by entirely different editorial managers from the rest of the Times’ news operation.

We corresponded both with news and editorial managers. Essentially, they told us that this error is too old to fix. In the past, we’ve heard from Times news editors that there is no bright line dividing recent, correctable errors and those that are too old to correct. The editorial side’s representative was more comfortable setting the cutoff for corrections at more or less one year, but added that it’s not a hard and fast policy and older errors can be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The editors declined to be quoted publicly about the situation and instead referred us to the Times’ communications department for an official statement. (We inquired there, too, and later received a one-sentence explanation.)

We inquired with Friedman about it as well. He emailed: “A quick Google tells me you are correct, in which case the column in the digital archive should be corrected. Thanks for pointing it out.”

But in a follow-up email he said: “I checked on this and was told that the newsroom has a rule that we don’t go back in time to correct minor errors in the archive. They draw a line at one year.”

This, of course, raises the question whether this error should be considered “minor.” If President Bush didn’t sign the Rio Treaty in 1993, Friedman’s argument in the column that Republicans used to be more friendly to the environmental cause is significantly weakened.

The Times’ lack of clarity with its approach to archival corrections is something Scott Rosenberg and I examined thoroughly in July, in our in-depth article published in The Atlantic, “The Case of the New York Times Terror Error.” That case involved a nine-year-old error sitting in the Times archive — ostensibly a minor one, until it blew up into a major one this spring. (And despite its age, the Times did end up issuing a correction for it.)

The Times’ consistency problem here is obvious. Espen highlighted it succinctly in his own comments about the outcome of the Friedman bug report:

As a former editor, I sympathize with the need to draw the line somewhere and with a reluctance to devote diminishing resources to burrowing backward into the news-cycle equivalent of ancient history. But as a fervent reader, admirer, and occasional contributor to the Times, this one-year rule sticks in my craw as a certifiable Catch-22: after all, my attempt to alert the Times to the mistake within the first year of publication disappeared into a black hole, yet now that the error has at last been acknowledged, it’s too late.

We, too, appreciate the formidable challenge the Times faces if it commits to correcting substantive errors in its archive. But as we explained in detail in our Atlantic piece, this is not only a plausible goal in the digital age, it’s also a necessary one.

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John Yoo’s faulty Bin Laden conspiracy theory

John Yoo is someone who knows how to push an argument. At the U.S. Justice Department he designed rationales for the most controversial policies of the Bush-Cheney “war on terror,” and since then he has promoted right-wing political views in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Yoo must also know that an argument, however unyielding, quickly goes limp when it gets basic facts wrong.

If so, he hasn’t bothered to address a key problem with his recent Op-Ed trashing President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden. His misrepresentation of the CIA’s role, flagged in a MediaBugs error report, undermines Yoo’s most audacious critique of the president.

What was hailed across the press and party lines as Obama’s “gutsy” call to send in the Navy Seals, Yoo regarded as a botched opportunity. He suggested that the U.S. might have taken bin Laden alive. “If true, one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands,” Yoo wrote in the Journal.

That was just part of how he reiterated the case for the Bush administration’s brutal interrogations of terrorist suspects. Yoo further argued that Obama wanted bin Laden not dead or alive, but just dead — because taking him prisoner would have required Obama “to hold and interrogate bin Laden at Guantanamo Bay, something that has given this president allergic reactions bordering on a seizure.”

Here’s the problem: Yoo’s argument hangs on a faulty summation of the intelligence trail that brought the Navy Seals to Abbottabad. From Yoo’s perspective, as the U.S. closed in on the compound “the CIA became certain that the al Qaeda leader was hiding inside.”

That doesn’t square with planning and operational details made public by top Obama officials and the president himself. As many news outlets have reported, Obama had to calculate his risky decision based on uncertain evidence of bin Laden’s whereabouts. According to CIA director Leon Panetta, analysts were only 60 to 80 percent confident bin Laden would be found in the compound. “We never had direct evidence that he in fact had ever been there or was located there,” Panetta said. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said Obama made his move based on “what was probably a 50-50 chance that Osama bin Laden was there.” The president himself said on “60 Minutes” that “there was no direct evidence” of bin Laden’s presence.

If Yoo and the editors of the Wall Street Journal know something about the bin Laden operation the rest of don’t, they should share it. Otherwise, they should correct the record.

In a recent conversation about news accuracy, a senior editor at the New York Times told me that its opinion writers tend to get more leeway than its news reporters do when it comes to drawing context. Still, he said that when an opinion writer has clearly gotten a fact wrong “you have to correct it.”

We agree. The question is, does the Wall Street Journal? We may not get an answer to that; thus far the Journal has been unresponsive to inquiries about Yoo’s piece, and its newsroom has proven inaccessible on such matters in prior cases.

It’s unsurprising to see Yoo argue for the notorious interrogation policies he helped craft. (Or for more credit for bin Laden’s demise to go to the president he worked for.) But his implication that Obama — armed with full-proof intelligence — intended from the get-go to bury bin Laden at sea just so he wouldn’t have to decide whether to waterboard him looks foolish in the face of widely reported facts. Meanwhile, the Times has since reported that the White House had two teams of specialists ready for action during the mission: “One to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second composed of lawyers, interrogators and translators in case he was captured alive.”

As of this writing, MediaBugs’ multiple emails to Yoo and the Wall Street Journal have gotten no response and Yoo’s piece remains as it was first published.

Update, 5/23/11: There is now some additional reporting contradicting Yoo’s piece, from the Washington Post and… the Wall Street Journal itself. (See the updates at the bottom of the post.)

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How USA Today tiptoed away from the GE tax hoax

Last Wednesday, USA Today editor Doug Stanglin reported about the Associated Press’s hugely embarrassing misfire-of-a-story on General Electric. In a blog post headlined “AP falls for prank report that GE is giving back a $3.2B tax refund,” Stanglin quoted from AP’s correction, included the full text of the retracted AP story on GE, and cited a report from Reuters about the activists behind the hoax.

It was a thorough rundown except for one thing: USA Today had also fallen for the prank report. The fact that it ran the bogus story from AP, and later removed it from USAToday.com, did not make it into Stanglin’s blog post. Why not?

Many news outlets run wire stories using an automated feed of some kind. Given the speed and volume of the content it’s easy to see how mistakes or problems could be missed — and whether news sites should be responsible for corrections to erroneous wire stories they’ve run has been an open question, as we noted in this recent error report.

But when a news outlet makes the effort to report on another outlet’s high-profile bungle — and fails to mention its own participation — readers are bound to wonder why.

If you searched for the bogus GE tax story on Google News on Wednesday, you would have seen that USA Today ran with it:

Or, if you were one of USA Today Money’s more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, you might’ve seen it there (or via one of the many people who retweeted it):

Many people quickly took notice of USA Today’s publication of the story, including the pranksters themselves. But later on Wednesday if you clicked on the link to that story, you arrived on a USA Today page simply telling you that it had been removed:

In other words, between the link to the retracted story (later on filled in with AP’s correction) and Stanglin’s blog post, USA Today essentially provided no record on its site that it played a part in spreading some majorly wrong “news.” Nor was there any mention on USA Today’s corrections page, despite the high-profile nature of the mistake, which had real consequences. (GE’s stock price dropped significantly on the fake news.)

If the AP’s blunder had been headed for USA Today’s print pages, it would have been caught and not published — but even in the unlikely event that it had been published, you can be sure the paper would have run a correction notice in a subsequent edition. Online publishing makes it easier to cause embarrassing errors to disappear, but it doesn’t remove any of a publisher’s responsibility to own up to and correct them.

MediaBugs reached out by email to both Stanglin and standards editor Brent Jones to find out why USA Today handled things the way they did. Both responded quickly and cordially, with a definitive explanation on Friday morning from Jones:

USA TODAY’s newsroom practice is to be forthright and transparent when setting the record straight. We responded to reader inquiries and published a correction on Twitter, but we should have included that we published the AP’s story when reporting on the GE tax hoax. To clarify with our readers, website editors have since updated our blog posting, posted a note on our corrections/clarifications blog and the AP’s corrected report.

It’s good that USA Today had put the word out on Twitter, and we applaud them for addressing the problem thoroughly on their site pages in response to our inquiry. (You can now see those updates here, here, and here.) Also worth noting is that USA Today’s accessibility and corrections practices put them at the front of the pack of U.S. media. Even so, in this case they needed external prodding to do the right thing.

Perhaps the online medium makes it easier to stumble in this way. It’s simple enough to unpublish something and just move on — and far too many news sites still lack a clear process for tracking and rectifying their mistakes. There may also be an increasing tendency, navigating today’s ephemeral sea of news, to shrug off responsibility for nonproprietary content. Wire stories, blog posts and tweets seem at once to come from everywhere and nowhere. That’s precisely why this case is instructive.

It’s simply not possible to walk away from the kind of goof USA Today indirectly made. Social media, search engines and other tools will capture it. As more and more content is syndicated, aggregated or borrowed (with or without permission), newsrooms may feel they are less responsible for its accuracy. But in an era of deep distrust of the media, the opposite has to be true. When a news site chooses to repeat someone else’s report it shoulders new accountability along with it — including a duty to correct errors, thoroughly and forthrightly, before they get compounded further.

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Juan Williams, Fox News and how to fix a flagrant error

Back in late February, Fox News columnist Juan Williams wrote a scathing piece about racial prejudice in the media. Exhibit A was the Washington Post’s coverage of a poll showing that African Americans and Latinos are optimistic about the economy. The Post, Williams charged, had “buried” this good news because it didn’t fit with the bleak racial stereotypes typically found on the front pages of “the big, white press.”

Since it turns out that the Post actually had splashed the upbeat poll story all over its Sunday front page and its website, the “entire premise” of Williams’ column, as a reader reported at MediaBugs, was flat-out wrong.

We did what we do in this situation, which is to try to get a response from the media outlet behind the piece in question. Yet, despite multiple attempts on our part to alert Williams and Fox News to the problem, they failed to respond or correct the blunder for weeks.

On Tuesday, Fox finally posted an editor’s note on the piece:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The results of the poll referred to in this article were in fact reported on the front page of the Feb. 20 editions of the Washington Post. Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post, and maintains the study’s findings deserved more prominent coverage in other media outlets.

The good news here is that Williams and Fox finally took responsibility for the mistake. Bravo! We mean it.

Nonetheless, it’s just possible that Williams and Fox might someday make another mistake. And since MediaBugs has published a set of best practices for error reporting and corrections, we thought we would offer a few suggestions should they ever find themselves in this position again:

  • Don’t wait a month and a half to fix an error, especially when it’s a flagrant one. If you can’t respond in short order, at least acknowledge inquiries on the matter and let folks know you’re looking into it.
  • Try not to mince words. Call an error an “error” and a correction a “correction.” Readers can probably surmise the meaning of “Mr. Williams regrets the oversight to the Post.” But it’s classier not to downplay a mistake while you’re in mid-regret.
  • Don’t use a correction to reiterate an argument. Williams certainly is free to wish that other outlets such as the New York Times had covered the Post poll — though, veteran that he is, he must know that most media companies rarely give big play to their competitor’s surveys. But when you’ve reported as fact something that hundreds of thousands of newspaper and online readers know to be false, your mea culpa is not the right place to declare “I was right anyway!” Write another column if you must.
  • Give your audience a clear and easy way to alert you when you’ve gone astray. If your “Email Newsroom” link leads the public into a brick wall, and they’ll have to spend weeks chasing down other ways to try getting your attention, you can safely conclude that your status quo is ineffective.

A really good start, in fact, would be to publish any kind of corrections page and policy on your website.

[Cross-posted from the PBS MediaShift blog.]

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Juan Williams misplays the race card

In a Feb. 24 column on FoxNews.com, Juan Williams rebuked the Washington Post for downplaying a poll measuring the views of blacks and Latinos on the recession. The poll, which the Post itself helped produce, showed those groups were more optimistic than whites about the U.S. economy despite being hit harder in the downturn. According to Williams, the Post’s poll coverage “did not make its front page” but instead was “buried” in the business section. This was typical, Williams said, of “big media’s inability to report on good news when it comes to life among people of color.”

The purpose of the column was to mount a case against unjust media, with the Post’s deficient poll coverage as Exhibit A. Williams worked his way up to a racially fraught finish:

If there is a story about black poverty, police brutality or a drug-related shooting spree in a Hispanic neighborhood, the big papers will feature it with Page One coverage. Those stories fit old racial stereotypes. And lots of old line civil rights groups and liberal cocktail party people will applaud those papers for any story about racial minorities’ complaints about life in America or stories confirming that life is bad, unjust and oppressive for people of color.

But when there is good news on race relations and refreshing evidence of blacks and Latinos leading the way by showing faith in America’s future, the big media is just not that into it.

That patronizing attitude amounts to prejudice. It is condescending and says more about the old racial attitudes holding back the big, white press than any racism holding back blacks and Latinos in modern America.

There’s one little problem with Williams’ complaint: The Washington Post hardly buried its poll. In fact, as an error report at MediaBugs details, it ran an in-depth story about its findings on the front page of the Sunday, Feb. 20 print edition — replete with a large, sunny photo illustration and oversized headline. The Post also produced an extensive multimedia package around the story on its website.

In other words, as the person who submitted the error report put it, “the entire premise of his column was incorrect.”

Williams’ blunder isn’t just embarrassing for how carelessly he flogged his apparently predetermined argument. (How could he have missed the striking A1 spread or multimedia Web package? Did he stop reading the Post altogether despite having worked there himself for more than two decades?) Equally undignified is that Williams and Fox News have ignored attempts by the public to alert them to the problem and get the record corrected.

For our part, MediaBugs tried multiple times to contact Fox News via email and Twitter since March 15. The generic address provided with FoxNews.com’s “Email Newsroom” link (newsmanager@foxnews.com) apparently isn’t effective. We have yet to get any response.

The lack of one may in part be due to the fact that Fox News has no accessible corrections info or content on its website, as we reported in our recently published study of online corrections practices across U.S. media. The news honchos at Fox might consider an approach more like the one at NPR, where Williams recently was ousted for a different prejudicial tangle. Fox may regard its newsroom as “fair and balanced” — but apparently it’s also totally inaccessible to an audience concerned with factual accuracy.

There’s some chance, once this post circulates, that Williams and Fox News will take notice of some unflattering attention and fix the piece. Better late than never. With our work at MediaBugs we’ve seen more than one case in which a long chase and critical coverage have proven necessary to motivate a response.

In the flourishing age of interactive news, it shouldn’t have to be that way. Terrific tools already exist for better communication and greater transparency. Perhaps only ideology, or just plain laziness, now stands in the way.

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Lara Logan story botched by LA Weekly

On February 15th the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline “Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone ‘It Girl,’ Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration.” The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been “brutally and repeatedly raped” — with that phrase emphasized in bold type.

The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan’s native country) — Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women’s issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We’ve received none.

It’s understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan’s attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing “a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating,” LA Weekly wasn’t the only outlet to make the leap to “rape.” (See Jen Phillips’ post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)

Still, it’s troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization’s credibility is stating the obvious — but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan’s.

Here’s one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he’d seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised — he’d understood that to be a central fact of the story.

The LA Weekly’s silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson’s piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including “firecracker” and “gutsy stunner.” Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.

That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update to her post on Feb. 16.)

But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan’s story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.

[Note: This post first appeared on PBS.org's MediaShift blog.]

UPDATED, 3/15/11: LA weekly has since posted a correction notice stating that it “erroneously interpreted CBS’ report of what happened to Logan on February 11, 2011.”

As of this update the original article’s headline and repeated references to “rape” in the text remain unchanged.

For additional details, see the updated mediabug.

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This is Yahoo News on speed: too fast for a correction notice

Recently the Spanish-language site of Yahoo News reported that NASA had contracted with three companies to develop some truly incredible commercial aircraft. The future planes, Yahoo reported, could be available by 2025 and fly at 85 percent of the speed of light. Just imagine: You’d be able to jump aboard one of these suckers and zing from Vancouver to Capetown in, oh, about a fifteenth of a second. Now that’s newsworthy!

And perhaps it might even be possible — but it’s not true. As a MediaBugs user reported, NASA is in fact aiming for these future aircraft to reach 85 percent of the speed of sound. (Impressive in its own right, but nothing remotely approaching the speed of light.) Apparently somebody at Yahoo Noticias en Espanol had mistranslated the NASA press release from which the story was mostly drawn.

Even seemingly small errors in the news — in this case a single mistranslated word — can matter, and they should be corrected with care. The Yahoo story was fixed a day or two after the mediabug was posted — a positive outcome — although without any notice to the public that it was changed. [*See update below.] We don’t actually know how the error came to Yahoo’s attention; I wasn’t able to get any meaningful response from the company when I tried to let them know about it.

Which is quite difficult to do. Yahoo News has no corrections info or content of any kind, nor any real channel for contacting its editors or producers. (When I tried the “News Help Form,” found via a barely noticeable link in the page footer, I received a comically unhelpful “Escalation Notice,” followed a day later by an email from a customer service rep promising to “send this information to our editors if necessary.” By that point the article had already been fixed.)

As we revealed in an in-depth MediaBugs study published in November, many legacy print-news companies are still stumbling big-time when it comes to error reports and corrections online. Yahoo News, of course, can’t even plead about transitioning to digital in an era of dwindling resources; it is part of a pioneering technology company native to the two-way medium of the Web. So why isn’t it doing a better job with this stuff?

Part of the answer may be that Yahoo News primarily is an aggregation site, filled with wire service stories and links to reporting from other news organizations. But in July 2010 Yahoo launched The Upshot, a news blog with original content produced by a small handful of established reporters and editors. Yahoo News already commanded huge traffic, but now the company apparently was making a bid for greater news-media relevance (and, presumably, even more traffic). Its Twitter feed, followed by roughly 62,000 people, says that its “Tweets are hand-picked by the Y! News Team and 100% RSS feed free!” In other words, there are real people behind the curtain here.

Still, good luck reaching them. In addition to trying the “help” form and contact via Twitter, I emailed an Upshot editor, Chris Lehmann, to see about reporting the “speed of light” error. He responded quickly and cordially, telling me that he had no idea whom to contact about it, particularly since the error was on the Spanish-language site. I commented that correcting a substantive error without any notice to the public is bad form. (Yahoo News has company in this practice: The New York Times and Reuters recently were caught doing this too.) “On the U.S. news blogs,” Lehmann said with regard to substantive fixes, “we always append an update to note when we’ve corrected the text.”

The Upshot also stands out from the Yahoo News mother ship by providing on its main page a visible list of editorial staff and their contact info. “Keep us honest,” editor Andrew Golis wrote last July. “Email us, comment on our posts, let us know when we’ve made a mistake. When we agree with you, we’ll be fast and transparent about fixing it, apologizing and explaining.”

The rest of the Yahoo News operation should get onboard with that agenda if it wants the public to trust in its content, already an uphill battle for the news media in general.

Here’s a suggestion to the managers of Yahoo News for a good start: Join the Report an Error Alliance. Put that snazzy little red-and-black button on every news page. When it bleeps with reader feedback, have somebody around to respond in reasonably short order (light speed won’t be necessary!) and publish the results in a transparent, user-friendly way.

UPDATE, 11:30 a.m. PT: Things have since accelerated farther away from clarity: When I returned to the Yahoo News story page today to check for an update I discovered that the text has changed back to the erroneous version first published. Whereas the segments in question had been changed from “la velocidad de la luz” to “la velocidad del sonido” they are now back to the former.

My suspicion is that while the first change was in all likelihood made by a person, the reversion to the error is probably due to a system glitch whereby that fix was overwritten. Of course, this points back not so neatly to the crux here — we have no effective way to inform Yahoo News about the problem, let alone get a clear explanation from them.

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Endless quest for a fix at CNN

CNN’s broadcasts these days are packed with cheerleading for the network’s viewer participation opportunities. You’re encouraged to “share your story” at CNN iReport or “join a live chat” at Anderson Cooper’s blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network’s nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you happen to notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Back on October 28th, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. (Watch the CNN clip here.) A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know about bugs as they are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn’t entirely surprising since the form’s auto-reply message says, “While we are unable to personally reply to every e-mail, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one.”

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN Managing Editor Jay Kernis‘ email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is “dedicated to assisting our viewers.” After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, different from, though similar to, the one I’d used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. “We will look into,” @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as being on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN’s website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network’s “Copyright Agent.” Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he’d look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

As of this publication, CNN still hasn’t provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn’t much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there’s no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn’t to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs’ recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We’ve had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the LA Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility — a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

We’ve been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it’s pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let’s take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS Media Shift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as part of the Report an Error Alliance.

[This post first appeared at PBS.org's MediaShift Idea Lab.]

UPDATE 12/9/10: CNN has finally responded with a correction. Details here.

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Wall Street Journal runs unsupported Obama-shakeup story, then stonewalls questions

Just ahead of last week’s election the Wall Street Journal reported that “high-level Democrats” were calling for President Obama “to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers” in the face of an imminent drubbing at the polls.

But an error report on MediaBugs flagged a conspicuous problem with the story: It contained no evidence supporting the claim in its headline and first paragraph. Not a single one of the eight people quoted in the piece called for Obama “to remake his inner circle” or “fire top advisers.” (Read the story here.)

Over the past week we contacted the Journal five times seeking a response to the error report. We emailed a reporter, a managing editor and a general address designated for reporting errors to the newsroom. We also called the phone number listed with corrections info in the print edition. We haven’t received any response.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a void when trying to reach the Journal about an error report. And while the previous instance involved a minor mistake, this one is more substantial.

It isn’t just that we think a reasonable error report deserves a response. It’s in the Journal’s best interest to provide one.

Surely more than one Journal reader wondered why there were no quotes to back up the story’s headline and premise. With no explanation from the newsroom, all we can do is speculate. It’s possible that the reporters spoke with “high-level Democrats” who said they wanted Obama to fire top advisers, but who would only say so off the record. (In which case the article might have explained that.) Or it’s possible an editor chose to punch up the opening and add a headline intended to attract maximum eyeballs. Maybe somebody at the Journal was eager to suggest a dramatic loss of confidence in Obama on the eve of a big election — after all, ever since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, critics have been identifying a rightward slant in its news pages. (See, for example, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and many other sources.)

It’s also possible that the above explanations aren’t remotely accurate. We just don’t know.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. A Wall Street Journal reader raised a legitimate question; by failing to respond, the paper has left a void for its readers to fill with suspicion and surmise. (Journal readers may have noticed that no top advisers have departed the administration since the election; meanwhile, subsequent reports from Politico and NPR indicate that changes at the White House are likely to involve the “reshuffling of a relatively small cast of Obama insiders” and that “nobody expects an inrush of new blood.” Still, even the departure tomorrow of the entire White House staff would not answer the questions raised by the Journal story.)

When MediaBugs reaches out to newsroom managers about an error report, we explain that our aim is to help close the feedback loop, often inadequate, between the public and newsrooms. (Read our newly published national survey of news sites to see just how inadequate that feedback loop typically is.) We don’t tell editors whether they should run a clarification or correction — that remains up to them to decide and to articulate to the public.

In the pre-Internet age, it was easy for a news organization to control a conversation in the public view about its journalistic practices, or simply to ignore it altogether. Today, the conversation about journalism is everywhere; that’s the case whether or not a news organization chooses to engage with it. When it comes to championing accuracy, the best way forward is to be accessible, transparent and engaged with the public.

Updated Nov. 11, 2010: We received a response this afternoon from an assistant managing editor saying that the Journal “fundamentally disagrees” with the error report. Read the full response here.

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AP’s complicated Seinfeld episode

Recently a MediaBugs user reported that an Associated Press story had misidentified the “Seinfeld” character George Costanza as Jerry’s “neighbor” on the show. Eventually the AP’s west coast entertainment editor, Steve Loeper, responded to an inquiry about the matter, and the AP subsequently decided to publish a correction.

It was a positive outcome, but here’s the rub: Getting to it involved no less than contacting five different people, sending eight emails and making three phone calls — and it took more than three weeks to get a result.

Indeed, one of our early observations with MediaBugs has been that reporting an error to news organizations — even (or is it especially?) large, reputable ones — can be difficult and time-consuming.

When the “Seinfeld” bug appeared on our site on April 28th, I searched online for a specific channel through which to contact the AP regarding errors. I couldn’t find one. (Apparently one does not exist; more on that in a minute.) The AP story had no byline but was datelined Los Angeles, so I looked up the LA bureau and sent an email to the news editor there, Brian Melley. Having been a news editor myself at a busy national media outlet, I knew his inbox was likely to be inundated. I followed up with another email two days later. A couple days after that I tried calling, and emailed again on the heels of that. Then I also tried emailing the LA bureau chief, Anthony Marquez.

Next, I thought to contact an acquaintance who works as a reporter for the AP in Washington, to see if I was even poking in the right place. I learned from her that the news service has a decentralized system for corrections; the AP reporter and/or editor on a specific story apparently is responsible for handling any potential correction. I had been poking in the right place, if to no avail.

Next I tried emailing another person I knew of who used to work in the AP’s LA bureau, to ask if there was anyone else there I might try. He suggested contacting Loeper. After a couple of emails and a voicemail, Loeper responded in timely and good-humored fashion, and we were on our way to a correction. (While the bug ostensibly had been posted by a “Seinfeld” devotee, Loeper subsequently told me via email that the AP “got the definitive word from Rick Ludwin, the NBC executive in charge of the ‘Seinfeld’ series back in the ‘90s, who noted that Kramer and Newman lived in Jerry’s building, but George had his own apartment in another building and also lived with his parents for a time.”)

In the end, AP did right by the error. It wasn’t an earth-shattering one. But rather than getting into whether it’s important for such errors to be corrected (see here and here for why we believe it is), a simple question instead: why does it have to be so hard to get an error fixed?

You can almost hear Jerry working it into one of those nightclub monologues he used to close the show with: “What’s the deal anyway with these newsroom people? You see a simple mistake, so you try to let them know — you email and you call, and you call and you email, and… nothing. Really? What’s the deal with that?” (Cue laugh track.)

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