< Regret the Error

Transcript

Friday, December 30, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: 2005 was a year of relentless navel-gazing for the media, which were swamped with questions about accuracy and bias and the misuse of anonymous sources. So how well was the public served by journalism in 2005? Overall, that's a difficult judgment to make, but perhaps we can begin by assessing some of the year's most egregious errors. Craig Silverman is the editor of the website "Regret the Error," which tracks media mistakes, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was the best error of 2005?

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Right. Well, it's kind of a best of the worst, I guess, is what you could say.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: The error that I selected this year as the best error of the year was, of course, the story in Newsweek about a Koran being flushed down the toilet. One of the things this year that was a big topic was anonymous sources, and Newsweek's story relied on a single anonymous source for the material. And in the end, in fact, Newsweek couldn't totally verify that a Koran had been flushed down the toilet, and it was eventually - and really reluctantly - forced to retract the story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were relying on a trusted source who said that he'd seen it in a document and later said, "Well, maybe it wasn't in that document. In fact, it wasn't in that document, but I did hear it somewhere."

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: That's right. It became very muddled. It just ended up getting pulled into the information current. It was used as propaganda by a politician, and that politician helped spur on these anti-American protests which ended up turning violent and killing at least 15 people.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And actually, in order to have a winning entry in your annual round-up, the mistake does have to have consequences. You also mention in your introduction a Fox News commentator's error that caused a family to be terrorized by its neighbors, and a Chicago Tribune piece which photographed the wrong guy and called him a mobster.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Yeah. Well, actually, the Chicago Tribune did it two days in a row, in fact. One day they had a graphic sort of showing the infrastructure of the Mafia, and they used a picture of a Chicago businessman and said that he was one of these mobsters. Well, he shared the same name as the man, but he wasn't the same person. Then the next day, they said that this gentleman was somebody by the name of Joseph "The Clown" Lombardo, and to make matters worse, the statement under the photo said, "Have you seen this clown?"

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: And in the Fox News case, it's really just something you feel terrible about. This pundit went on the air and he said, "There's a suspect in the London bombings who lives in this house in California," and he read out the address [CHUCKLES] on the air. This poor family [CHUCKLES] had to have a police car stationed outside their home to protect them.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about the best correction.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Last year, it was a very short correction in a Kentucky newspaper, and it said, "It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission."

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: It was the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being passed. And so last year they were looking through their archives and found there was nothing there for them to look at, so they ran this correction. I actually consider that one to be quite brave, and that was an easy choice. For this year, the correction reads, "The Denver Daily News would like to offer a sincere apology for a typo in Wednesday's Town Talk regarding New Jersey's proposal to ban smoking in automobiles. It was not the author's intention to call New Jersey 'Jew Jersey.'"

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [CHUCKLES]

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: The correction is 39 words. It offended a state and a major religion, and they basically put up 39 words to rectify it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think most anybody would see that that was a typo.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Well, they would, but then we're coming to sort of the core of the correction, and does it work? Does it actually correct the error.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean, they should have said on the front page, "By the way, if you look at your typewriter you'll see that the J and the N -" [BOTH AT ONCE]

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: "- are really close together?" I mean, really, what are they supposed to say?

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Well, you know, you should use it as an opportunity to communicate to your readers, you know, how these things happen and what your policies are. I think that a lot of us in the media think that people don't want to know how the sausage is made. We think that people just want to get their news and have it given to them, and that's it. But I think that what we're seeing with the rise of blogs that are, you know, very critical of the media, people actually do care.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your round-up you also identify the best misuse of the Internet, which involved the story about a man who was stuck in his car in an avalanche who drank many cans of beer he happened to have with him and urinated his way to freedom. It was published repeatedly, even though it was just essentially an Internet hoax.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Well, you know, information gets passed very, very quickly, and when that information is incorrect, it goes at the same speed as correct information.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Generally speaking, do you think these media outlets do a pretty good job of acknowledging their errors?

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: The will is there and the ethics are there, but I think where things get a little bit muddled is in the actual application of the policies and in the application of the ethics that they hold. It's interesting to note, we're talking about newspapers. The truth is, on television you hardly ever hear a correction and on radio - [OVERTALK]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. And it's not as if they don't make mistakes.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: That's it. In broadcast it's much more of a wishy-washy thing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think there are more errors now or are there, in fact, just as many errors as there ever were, only there's a lot more scrutiny?

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Well, I absolutely agree there is a lot more scrutiny with blogs and with organizations that call themselves fact-checking organizations but are actually just pushing a partisan point of view. We've also seen in this past year a lot of layoffs. We have less people in newsrooms who are expected to do the same amount of work, and I think that that's a recipe for more errors.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How many years have you been doing this annual round-up of mistakes?

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: This is actually the second year that I've done it, and, in fact, I [LAUGHS] I actually had to ask for a correction just last week. My grandfather passed away, and he was a prominent member of the symphony in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I'm from, and so the CBC Radio actually put up a story on their website. And I read through, and I was very happy and very pleased it was there until I got to his age, which they got wrong. [LAUGHS] It took two e-mails for me to get them to correct that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So all this error-tracking, this is personal for you.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Errors are personal. When you spell someone's name wrong, that may be the only time they get in the magazine or newspaper and it basically ruins the experience.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Craig, thank you very much.

CRAIG SILVER

MAN: Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig Silverman is editor of Regrettheerror.com as well as a staff writer for the New Canadian.

BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, listening in on wars, past and present.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.