To err is journalism

Except TECHNICALLY AP Style is “No. 1”

As much as journalists hate to admit it, we are not perfect. Granted — no one is. But journalists are particularly fallible in part because we refuse to acknowledge our fallibility.

This blog item comes to you today because I … I made an error in a story last week.

It was a fairly minor story, but that’s not an excuse. The only thing I will say to defend myself is this: I was really busy last week. I had a lot on my plate and a county government meeting with a really small agenda was at the very bottom of my totem pole of priorities.

OK. Enough stalling. Here’s the story.

Like I said, it was a story about a county government meeting, and the agenda released beforehand was an unremarkable one. There were only three items listed under “new business,” and all of them were routine measures, things the county has to pass every year. No ceremony. No discussion. Just housekeeping.

The first of the new items was signing a contract with a company for dead livestock removal. The company removed carcasses of livestock from people’s farms and processed them for a fee. The county enters into this kind of contract so that the decaying carcasses won’t pollute the water supply.

Well reading through the contract and listening to the discussion during the meeting, I made the mistaken assumption that it was not dead livestock removal, but road kill. So I printed road kill.

The next day, the head of the county government called me about it and requested that a correction be printed. And he was very nice and understanding — he said that if he had known that I thought it was road kill, he would have immediately corrected me. He blamed it on himself for not clarifying it.

But here’s the thing: It was my fault. My fault entirely. It’s rule No. 1 in journalism school: Never, ever, ever assume. EVER. As the saying goes: “When you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.”

Well I made a gigantic ass of myself and I felt terrible.

My editor didn’t make a big deal about it, I think in part because he could already tell I was beating myself up about it. He just wrote the correction, made me file a correction form. Then the opinion editor gave me a cake pop and said it would make me feel better.

Errors in journalism happen all the time. And it’s not like we’re doctors or cops or anything like that; Lives aren’t on the line we we screw up. Our errors aren’t the difference between life and death.

BUT our errors are the difference between credibility and public distrust.

David Carr, New York Times columnist and media reporter, published a column this morning about high-profile journalistic misdeeds and their contribution to a deteriorating public trust of American news media. He mentioned specifically News Corporation’s phone-hacking scandal and more recent gaffes, such as CNN and Fox News’ misreporting of the Supreme Court Obamacare ruling.

In the column, he says that the Internet fosters a hyper-competitive nature among news outlets, which provides the perfect storm for mistakes, gaffes and breaches of journalistic ethics. And all of these things make the public distrust us even more. Carr says:

“According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in 1985, 34 percent of the respondents thought stories contained inaccuracies. As of 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 66 percent.”

I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off.

And what’s even worse, Carr goes on to say that a great deal of this is our fault. Our fault for hacking phones, jumping to conclusions and making shit up — but also our fault for ignoring it. News Corp. received significantly less media coverage than it deserved. CNN and Fox News just completely glossed over its misreporting of the Obamacare ruling.

It’s almost like we collectively believe that if we ignore all of the things we’ve done wrong, the public will trust us more.

I understand the urge. I wanted to ignore the fact that I made this huge error in a story last week. I wanted to sweep it under the rug and pretend like it never happened. But IT DID. It happened and I felt terrible about it.

And I think that’s another reason the media collectively ignores its errors. Because if we turned around and faced the crossed arms and skeptical looks of the public we have been misguiding for years, we’d finally have to answer questions we don’t want to answer and feel guilt we fight like hell to keep at bay.

Well, I’m not going to be a part of it.

I made a mistake. I made a huge mistake and it was entirely my fault. No one else’s but my own. I failed at my job. I failed to properly inform the public. I failed to ask the follow-up questions, and I failed to understand the subject at hand. I made assumptions that did damage to my credibility and the trust my audience had in me.

I can’t promise that I won’t make another mistake, because I will. I’m human, and that’s what I do. But I do promise to do better. I do promise to better understand the issues I report on and ask better follow-up questions. And I promise to allow my readers to kick my ass if I ever make a mistake like this again.

That made me feel much better than the cake pop.


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