Setting the record straight

(The original version of this entry was written by Ramya Jegatheesan)

"That half or more Americans think Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attack - perhaps the most media-covered event in our history -- stands as a horrific indictment of U.S. media today."

– Jeff Cohen, founder of media watch group FAIR (quoted in Media Reform and Democracy)

The media can be a sea of errors. Scott Maier, a University of Oregon journalism professor, tracked and analyzed how often error-ridden news stories end up being corrected. He followed 1,200 factual errors that were identified by news sources in an accuracy study of ten daily U.S. newspapers and found that less than two percent of the mistakes identified by the news sources in the articles ever led to a “published correction” (1).

Sometimes, errors persist even after they have been disproved. Almost one in five Americans seem to think Barack Obama is Muslim according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey (media-ocracy). This number went up from March 2009, when the Pew Research Center found that only 11 percent of Americans believed this (media-ocracy). The culprit? 60 percent of those who believe President Obama is a Muslim got that idea from the media, with television media leading the way (media-ocracy).

Kovach and Rosenstiel include in their elements of journalism three principles, which speak to the necessity of correcting errors. The first is that "journalism's first obligation is to the truth," and the second is that "its essence is a discipline of verification" (5). Both of these speak to journalism's function in giving the "people the information they need to be free and self-governing" (Kovach and Rosenstiel 5). In other words, the press' role is to practice journalism in the public's interest.

Why does this even matter? As Kovach and Rosenstiel write, "Only by recognizing the primacy of principle can journalism change ethically and come out the other side still fulfilling the same democratic purpose for a new century, a new technology, and a new kind of information-wired citizen" (8). And it is through this lens of professional best practices that journalists will be judged before the court of law. In Grant vs. TorStar and Hodgson vs. Globe and Mail, the judgments suggest that news organizations must correct errors in reporting.

Why the truth matters

Apart from the obvious that news that fails to tell the truth is no longer journalism but fiction and hardly something the public can act on, we live in vastly different times. The internet and the sheer volume of knowledge that people are drowning in have created a different reality for journalists. With a few strokes of the key, almost anyone can publish on the web from anywhere in the world. Information is no longer a steady trickle, but a constant downpour (Postman). In his speech “Informing ourselves to death,” Postman argues that we “live in a world that … makes no sense to us” and that means we’ll believe almost anything “because there is no reason not to believe”. For journalists to gain and keep the public's trust in such an environment, truth and a system of verification are essential. According to Media scholar D. Charles Whitney, “Nothing is more crucial to a news organization than its reputation for accuracy, and nothing is more crucial to establishing this reputation than the honest, timely, and public admission of errors” (quoted in Maier 4).

“Errors can be forgiven, but confession is required,” was the conclusion reached by the ASNE Credibility Project, which spent three years trying to foster audience trust at eight test-site newspapers (quoted in Maier 5-6). A U.S. national survey found that most newspaper readers “feel better” when they see errors corrected and published (Maier 2), and that many read the corrections box regularly (Maier 5-6). But many Americans, 63 percent, believe that news stories are often inaccurate according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey report (“Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade low”). The Pew Research Center survey also found that only 21 percent believe news organizations are willing to “admit their mistakes” (“Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade low”). The story is not that much different when it comes to Canadians. A 2008 Canadian Media Research Consortium study found that two thirds of Canadians believe that news organizations “cover up their mistakes” (The Credibility Gap 5), and 48 percent of Canadians believe “news stories are often inaccurate” (The Credibility Gap 6).

As Kovach and Rosenstiel observe, people "are becoming their own editors" and researchers (19). The Internet has become a great leveler: the public has access to thousands of publications from all around the world. One could potentially read about the same event in 20 different papers from around the world, comparing their narratives and interpretations and observing their mistakes. So it only makes sense that organizations or publications who nurture a reputation for accuracy, transparency and pursue journalism with an objective methodology by correcting errors when they make them, will attract a more loyal and trusting audience than organizations who fail to uphold these standards. These are just some of the principles and methodology that help to set apart journalists from the average person publishing on the web. But if publications fail to uphold these standards and lose the trust of their audience, it takes just a single keystroke to lose their audience and their credibility. After all, if journalists claim to be truth-tellers and seekers then they must be open with their audience when they discover errors; otherwise they are not giving their readers and viewers the respect they deserve (Kovach and Rosenstiel 92).

There are so many ways for the public to point out errors in the media now. Readers can email journalists and editors. They can sound off on their own blogs. They can comment at the end of an article. They can alert error compilation sites such as Silverman’s Regret the Error. They can hear about it on fake news shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And if they google the story, all these other critiques of that story will pop up as well. News organizations cannot get away with ignoring their mistakes without looking like fools. The lack of acknowledgment and correction will eat away at an organization’s credibility. As Kovach and Rosenstiel observe, "audiences expect their new facts to become part of the record" (21). It is not a matter of if an error gets found out, but when. And if a news organization then fails to correct its errors, it is also cutting off the conversation with its audience and potentially future news subjects and sources. People may no longer be so willing to talk to an organization with a reputation for erroneous reporting and reluctance for acknowledging and correcting it. Ordinary people, after all, may have no recourse to restoring their reputation or correcting the facts beyond asking the offending publication to rectify their mistakes by printing a retraction or correction. Not everyone has thousands of dollars to spend taking a news organization to court.

In effect, a news organization that fails to uphold basic ethical standards and pursue an objective methodology in its reporting, helps to create different classes of citizens. Some, because they have wealth and influence, can afford the money and the time to defend themselves while others have to live with being tossed into the proverbial gutter. No ordinary member of the public should have to spend their life savings in court because a journalist made a mistake and did not want to admit it.

An error by any other name

Not all errors that need correction are of a factual nature. Some might classify as errors in reporting, the lack of balance in telling a story. Maier writes in his paper on corrections in the news that researchers have classified errors of both fact and meaning (3). Errors of fact fall into the following categories: “misquotes, spellings, names, ages, other numbers, titles, addresses, other locations, time and dates” (3). Errors of meaning, on the other hand, can include “overemphasis, under-emphasis, omission, and misleading headlines (3). For example, FAIR (Fair and Accuracy in Reporting) wrote a wish list of media corrections they would like to see. It included the following wish:

"For more than five years, readers of this newspaper have encountered -- without attribution -- frequent references to ‘the war on terrorism’ and ‘the war on terror.’ While avidly used by architects and supporters of the U.S. government’s military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, such phrases are based on assumptions that could be substantively and effectively refuted. The Daily Bugle regrets that its news pages have relentlessly promoted such official buzzwords as though they were objective realities instead of terms devised to manipulate the public for endless war” (Soloman).
As Soloman observes, language can be spun and abused. It is not neutral territory. For journalists to parrot phrases without weighing its meaning is not only irresponsible, but panders to the powerful without fulfilling its role as a check on those in power. A correction in this instance, could be refraining from using the phrase war on terror, writing an editorial to explain why it is no longer being used, and replacing the phrase with words that are more neutral.

Some errors come about because a reporter has omitted key information, as was the case in a front-page 1991 Globe and Mail article by Jock Ferguson. The story was about a York Region engineering commissioner who handled the Region’s purchase of land from a developer (Hodgson v. Canadian newspapers Company Limited 2000). The Supreme Court of Canada found that Ferguson acted with malice because he failed to give Hodgson an opportunity to tell his side of the story, relied heavily on a biased source, and “suppressed” evidence that shed a positive light on Hodgson’s version of events (Hodgson v. Canadian newspapers Company Limited 2000).

In such a case as this, corrections could have come in the form of further articles telling Hodgson’s side of the story and an editorial note added to the original article. These kinds of corrections are just as important as the factual ones that immediately come to mind. Soloman argues that often papers will correct small errors in fact, but then will bypass more problematic flaws as the ones mentioned above.

The Hutchins Commission made an interesting observation. “It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact (quoted in Kovach and Rosenstiel 42).

Corrections should not hide in the closet

News organizations should not bury their corrections but place them in prominent spots so they are visible and difficult to overlook. But even this may not be enough. Silverman, founder of the Regret the Error website, writes that he would like to see news sites embed their corrections within the erring articles, create online forms to encourage their audience to report mistakes, and find a way to automatically let websites that have linked to erring articles know that a correction has been made (Corrections and accuracy wishes for the new year). He also suggests adding a “Notify me if this article is corrected” button next to the ubiquitous “Share” and “Print” buttons on news websites as well as crediting readers for “spotting” and reporting errors (Corrections and accuracy wishes for the new year).

But corrections do not always need to come in the form of a direct acknowledgement or editor’s note in the case of articles that have had lopsided coverage. Instead, the publication can balance the conversation and its coverage by publishing further stories exploring the other angles, context, or issues that were left out in the original piece and then link all of them so readers can read them all sequentially. It is what Kovach and Rosenstiel were referring to when they wrote, “This practical truth is a protean thing that, like learning, grows like a stalactite in a cave, drop by drop, over time” (44). These may not be obvious errors, but they are errors nonetheless and must not be overlooked. Follow-up is critical because without it there is neither clarification nor corrections, and readers are left with a one-dimensional error-ridden perspective on the subject. In essence, they are left with a cracked foundation on which they can build nothing (Kovach and Rosenstiel 43).

Works Cited

"Behind the Obama Muslim Myth Stands the Right Wing." Media-ocracy. 23 Oct. 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2010. <

Hodgson v. Canadian Newspapers Company Limited. Court of Appeal for Ontario. 22 June 2000. Guide to Ontario Courts. 22 June 2000. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Crown, 2001. Print.

Maier, Scott. "Tip of the Iceberg: Published Corrections Represent Less than Two Percent of Factual Errors in Newspapers." All Academic. Aug. 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2010.

"Media Reform and Democracy: Quotable Quotes (2)." Dropbearito. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

Solomon, Norman. "Media Corrections We’d Like to See." FAIR. 24 July 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

Postman, Neil. "Informing Ourselves to Death." Speech. German Informatics Society, Stuttgart. 11 Oct. 1990. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

"Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low: Overview." Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. 13 Sept. 2009. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

Silverman, Craig. "Corrections and Accuracy Wishes for the New Year | Regret the Error." Regret the Error: Mistakes Happen. 23 Dec. 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

"The Credibility Gap: Canadians and Their News Media." Canadian Media Research Consortium. May 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.

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