In both its spoken and written forms, the English language is constantly evolving. Grammar - the system and structure that underpin communications - and linguistics - the science of its study - can help us make sense of these shifts and changes. We talk with experts in each field about the quirks, foibles, understanding and glory of the written and spoken word.
Guest Host: Jennifer Golbeck
Today’s journalists use digital tools like Twitter to gather and share news. But these platforms also create new opportunities for very public mistakes. An erroneous tweet can be broadcast to thousands of followers in an instant, and it’s not always as simple as posting a correction. We look at what news outlets are doing to acknowledge their errors on the Web, and discuss the state of media accuracy online.
- Erik Wemple Media Writer, The Washington Post
- Craig Silverman Editor & Author, 'Regret the Error', Poynter.
- Jeremy Stahl Social media editor, Slate
- Shani Hilton Deputy editor-in-chief, Buzzfeed
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Once when a journalist got the facts wrong, you'd read about it on page A2 in the corrections section. But as our news moves online it's a lot less simple. News outlets frequently tweak a headline or correct a factual error after publication, but the reader may only see that the post has been updated.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKMeanwhile, journalists may re-Tweet or share unverified information on social media. And if the inaccurate information goes viral, their subsequent correct may go unnoticed. Here to discuss the media's challenge of fixing errors in the digital age are Erik Wemple, a media critic for the Washington Post. Good to have you here.
MR. ERIK WEMPLEWell, thanks for having me on.
GOLBECKAnd joining us from Montreal is Craig Silverman. He tracks accuracy, errors and verification techniques in his column for Poynter called "Regret the Error." Thanks for being here, Craig.
MR. CRAIG SILVERMANHi.
GOLBECKErik, the web has provided journalists with all kinds of tools to share information more quickly and effectively. But it's also created new opportunities for errors. When members of the media make mistakes online how good are they at acknowledging it?
WEMPLELousy. Generally lousy. And I would take a little bit of issue, I imagine Craig would too, with the first sentence of your statement when you said that when the newspaper made an error you'd find it on page A2. I think quite often when newspapers made errors before the digital age, you quite often would not find it on page 2.
WEMPLEThe newspapers have been covering up errors to the extent possible for ages. And I think you get it online, although I think it's more difficult than ever to get away with it.
GOLBECKInteresting. Craig, first I'd like to say that I'm a big fan of your column, and especially one of your most recent posts that has the headline, the Washington Post issued a correction after stripping Jesus of his title as founder of the Roman Catholic Church.
GOLBECKThe media's been adjusting to the web along with all the opportunities and challenges it's created for more than a decade. So when it comes to maintaining accuracy and correcting errors, to what extent do you think journalists and news organizations feel like they have it figured out?
SILVERMANThere are probably -- so one thing is that it certainly is going to vary from one organization to the next. I think organizations that are publishing online that have a history in publishing in print before or in other sort of, you know, legacy media as they're called now, they tend to have made perhaps a little more effort to try and transition things to online. But the truth is that in a lot of cases corrections are something that are kind of an afterthought for a lot of organizations. They don't think about sitting down and saying, okay what's our corrections policy for online. How does social media impact that? What about our push into video? How do we do corrections there?
SILVERMANSo in this kind of multiplatform world I don't think there's a lot of thought being put into it. There are some places where they've gotten to a point usually it often happens because there's been a big mistake where they say, okay, we need to figure this out. And just actually to add to Erik's point, there was a study done in terms of, you know, the percentage of errors in newspapers that actually get corrected. And they found that it was roughly a little bit less than 3 percent of verified factual errors in U.S. newspapers were corrected.
SILVERMANSo it's been a problem for a long time.
WEMPLEAnd these are -- and reported ones too. I mean, I don't know what the percentage of actual errors but there's -- you know, as a reporter that you may have a lot of errors in your copy but there are only so many that people bring to your attention. And so I always, you know, draw a very important distinction between errors that you know about and errors that you don't know about. And there attaches a significant moral difference to correcting each of those.
GOLBECKRight. You too can join the conversation. Do you think media organizations are transparent about their mistakes? Do you expect the same level of accuracy online as you do in print? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. Craig, in your column for Poynter called "Regret the Error," you track the media's errors as well as the resulting corrections. What are some of the common ways you see journalists and news sources correcting online stories? And how visible do you think those corrections are to readers?
SILVERMANYou know, so what seems to happen a lot is that when there's been a factual error and they decide they're going to add a correction, it's usually added to the top of that story or it's put on the bottom. And in some cases they'll actually put at the top of the story correction appended to note to people that there is a correction on the bottom.
SILVERMANAnd so that's sort of the style that's started to emerge. I mean, this is what you see at places like the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, but also at newer news organizations that are kind of, you know, digitally native news organizations. They realize that you have the ability to go in to, you know, fix the error but also you have the responsibility to add the correction to it as well. And typically it's at the top or the bottom.
SILVERMANThere are some news organizations that are also making an effort to -- you know, they realize hey we Tweeted this article out. Now let's also try and Tweet the correction or Tweet the update to it. And so we're starting to see that a little bit. Where things, you know, are a little bit of concern is that sometimes errors actually are gone. People go in, they fix it, because now you can actually do that. You can go in and change what's in there and republish. And then they don't have the correction. And that's called scrubbing.
SILVERMANAnd that's a really dishonest practice because it's literally been hundreds of years where readers, you know, starting in print obviously, have expected us to acknowledge and admit our mistakes. And so when we go in and now we have the technological ability to actually scrub them away and to choose not to add the correction, that's, you know, breaking a practice that's expected and been in place for a very long time.
WEMPLEAnd now with a lot of people taking screenshots and there's a site called News Desk, which tracks several news organizations' changes in stories. It is a really risky practice for a journalist to try to scrub because in many instances someone is watching. And that's the -- the lesson of the internet is that there are so many eyes out there and so many people who care about things and people who are up on the facts and they'll bust you. And they will get you on Twitter, on Facebook, everywhere. They'll write their own blog posts about it So it's an interesting world.
GOLBECKYeah, social media really is changing this dynamic. And one thing that I was looking at as we were getting ready to talk is at these online truth squads, right, which are kind of organized crowd-sourced groups of people going out to fact check both politicians and journalists in their articles. Do you think that plays into this landscape of how news organizations are reacting to and being transparent about their corrections, Erik?
WEMPLEOkay. Absolutely. I think that the truth squading that goes on just sort of informally on the web and also the formal fact checkers and, you know, everybody has basically become a media critic. I mean, Craig and I try to make a living off of it but there are a lot of people that do it as volunteers. And even if you tried to give them money not to they wouldn't accept that because this is stuff they really care about.
WEMPLEI get pinged on email and Twitter all the time when someone screws something up that they like to watch. Someone usually on cable TV which I cover pretty heavily, you know, they want not only to point out themselves but they want their favorite news outlet to point it out. And it's become really strong. And I know that scrubbing is one of the unfortunate sort of consequences of digital journalism. But I think that the truth squading that's developing out there is a great force for good and hope.
WEMPLEI don't know what Craig things. I think he -- actually I do. I think he thinks it is too.
GOLBECKCraig, I'd like your thoughts on this both, you know, with this kind of crowd source truth squading but also with offline organizations like the Sun Sign (sic) Foundation. They have a project called politwoops that detects all the Tweets that are deleted by members of congress. What are your thoughts on how this plays into the conversation?
SILVERMANI do view it as a good thing. The more scrutiny, the more people who can participate in the conversation, the more people who can bring facts to light obviously, you know, the better that is. One of the difficulties I think that happens today is, you know, when there's an information environment where it's characterized by the abundance of information, is people trying to really cut through.
SILVERMANAnd what happens is that people who have the money and who have a particular cause sort of take on the pose of saying, well we're doing fact checking. But in some cases now you have sort of faux fact checking, I would say, where it's really agenda driven. And they try to portray it as this natural kind of truth squading fact-checking that's going on. But really it's agenda driven.
SILVERMANAnd so it sort of confuses the conversation a little bit but that's the nature of a very open and kind of networked environment where you're going to have this going on. And people see that it's effective and then try to sort of take that in another direction. So that's -- you know, that to me is -- I suppose if you want to point out a negative aspect when it's been co-opted that's unfortunate. But the voices and the scrutiny and holding journalists and other people to account is an excellent thing.
SILVERMANAnd, you know, when politicians are on Twitter and they're tweeting and they have their own blogs and Facebook pages, you know, they are publishing. And you should hold them accountable. So the Sunlight tool that shows you the Tweets that have been deleted by politicians is a great thing because most of the time when they're deleting these Tweets they are not acknowledging why they deleted it or what it was.
GOLBECKWe're talking about errors, corrections and accuracy in the media with Erik Wemple from the Washington Post and Craig Silverman who writes "Regret the Error." Do you let media outlets and journalists know if you think they've made a mistake? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GOLBECKCraig, I'd like to just follow on the point that you were making. With web stories, editors have the option of making any kind of adjustment to the piece after publishing it, including deleting it entirely. In what cases do you think media outlets might go and fix something in an online article and not make note of it with an update or a correction?
SILVERMANSo the places where I think that that's, you know, acceptable is if there was something that was a small typo. My rule generally is that one, if you've made a factual error, even if it was just a small misspelling of name, you just want to note that in the corrections. So that's the standard I think that should be there.
SILVERMANAnd then the second thing is, if you had kind of a harmless typo that didn't introduce a factual error but really made that particular sentence or excerpt very confusing for the reader, than it's probably good when you go in an fix it to just note what you fixed. And so I think that when we see changes being made, a lot of the time it is a very small typo and that's okay. You don't necessarily need to add a correction to that.
SILVERMANHowever, I mean, there are times where, you know, people think well it was only up for five minutes. It doesn't matter what I got wrong. I caught it very quickly. And what happens is it becomes a very slippery slope. You know, if you're okay to go in and scrub it out after five minutes, what about ten or fifteen? So it's good to set, you know, a line there that, listen, if it was a factual error or if this was really confusing to readers, even if it's only been a couple of minutes, let's just disclose this.
SILVERMANAnd part of it is understanding that corrections are a good thing. Too much, there's kind of a culture of shame within news organizations where people don't want to admit their mistakes because they think they're going to get punished. And rather than treating it as kind of a learning moment, an opportunity to figure out what went wrong and how you can prevent it in the future, you have people trying to hide their mistakes in newsrooms, people trying to cover it up.
SILVERMANAnd it's a terrible thing because corrections actually build trust. And so it's good to have corrections. The worst kind of publication one that doesn't have corrections at all.
WEMPLERight. When I was -- when I ran the Washington City Paper here in D.C. that was basically that culture that I found, was that people were really scared of getting corrections and thought that it was going to affect their job security. I tried to turn that on its head by saying, the only way that it becomes a disciplinary matter is if you're caught suppressing a correction. If you come forth with a correction, that is actually helpful for your job security, provided it's not 15 per day. But in which case I think you'd probably have to relook at the entire career you've chosen.
WEMPLEBut anyhow, yeah, we try to change the culture to one of where you are rewarded for bringing forth and disclosing a correction. And that we would just discuss what we learned from any correction in the staff meetings where we say, how'd this happen. Because -- and Craig is an absolute expert on this -- a factual mistake can have so many different provenances, so many different origins. It's fascinating to see how often and how easily a factual mistake can make it in -- to a story.
WEMPLEAnd that is one of -- you know, there's never ever enough experience that you can acquire in figuring out how to sort of develop defenses against factual errors because they come from every possible angle, every possible way. (word?) Carlson once said, journalism is just the easiest thing. You just go and talk to somebody. What they say you put down. I couldn't disagree more. I think it's really hard to get it right. And that's why you see so many factual errors in stories. And it's also why I think people try to suppress them.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation with Erik Wentle (sic) -- Wemple and Craig Silverman after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Erik Wemple and Craig Silverman about corrections and accuracy in the media. You can join us at 1-800-433-8850 or by email to email@example.com. You can also check us out through Facebook and send Tweets to @kojoshow.
GOLBECKJoining us now we have Jeremy Stahl who's a social media editor for Slate. Jeremy, thanks for joining us.
MR. JEREMY STAHLThanks for having me, Jen.
GOLBECKAnd since I'm reading my favorite corrections today, I'd like to read my favorite Slate correction. It went up yesterday. You guys put up an article called Goop-ify your love life, which is a widget where you put in your name and your relationship status. And it tells you how Gwyneth Paltrow would describe your relationship status. Mine is generously affixed.
GOLBECKAnd you put up a correction yesterday that says, the relationship status Goop-ify originally misstated that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are deeply unyoked. Paltrow and Martin are consciously uncoupled. I really liked that correction.
STAHLWe like to have fun with those types of things. We've done those kinds of funny generators sometimes. And we did one last year for Anthony Wiener that gave people their Carlos Danger name.
STAHLAnd we had...
GOLBECKThat had a similar correction.
STAHLYeah, it had pretty much the exact same correction. I don't know if that's unfortunate or not but, yeah.
GOLBECKI think it's great. I love them. Slate recently they got a lot of attention for a correction it made on Twitter. It started with a Tweet about Vladimir Putin which mistakenly included a photo of actor Javier Bardem. Slate's social media editor, you, have come in to talk about that. When you saw you'd sent a Tweet confusing Vladimir Putin with this actor out to Slate's nearly 800,000 followers, what did you think was the best way to fix the mistake?
STAHLWell, first I had a moment of nervousness and just kind of like that woo when you make a mistake like that. But, man, you know, obviously it wasn't that enormous of a deal. It was kind of funny because the photo attached -- the headline of the Tweet was could Crimea become Putin's waterloo? The photo attached was this photo of Javier Bardem looking very much like a Javier Bardem-style villain.
STAHLAnd I just decided, you know, obviously when we make a mistake like that we correct it whether it's on the site or on social media. So I issued a correction saying correction, this is a photo of Javier Bardem and not Vladimir Putin.
GOLBECKAnd Craig, you covered that correction in Regret the Error.
SILVERMANYeah. It struck me so, one, yes, it was very funny. It was re-Tweeted a lot. You know, making funny mistakes can sometimes be a good strategy. It certainly got a lot of reaction. What was interesting to me was the way that Jeremy actually delivered the correction on Twitter because there isn't a correction feature on Twitter. And so people have to figure out what's the right way to offer a correction.
SILVERMANAnd so what a lot of news organizations do is, you know, they send out the incorrect one and then they realize. So then they send out a subsequent Tweet, you know, with the word correction, leading it sometimes in all caps and sort of what they got wrong. What Jeremy did, you know, was that aspect of it but he also sent this subsequent correction Tweet as a reply to the original Tweet.
SILVERMANAnd without getting too technical on it, what that kind of meant is that anybody who was sent a link to that original mistake in Tweet or who looked at kind of the conversation around it would automatically see that correction right under it. So it kind of linked them together, even though Twitter doesn't really have a function to let you do that. So I thought it was a neat way to use Twitter to make the original error and the corrections sort of flow together.
GOLBECKJeremy, how did you develop the strategy for correcting errors on social media and why do you think it works?
STAHLWell, I think what Craig said is exactly right, and I used to do that old approach of just doing an independent Tweet, a separate correction usually in all caps, stating what the mistake was. But then I realized, you know, people who see the original Tweet are still going to have that mistake if -- the Tweet still exists and people are still going to see the original mistake. And they'll have no context for what the mistake was. They won't even know a mistake was made.
STAHLSo I realized a very simple way to do this and one that the Twitter conversation function allows you to do is to just insert it as a reply. And I've been doing it for about a year now and it works very well. And, you know, it wasn't some, like, stroke of genius or anything like that. It was just like a common sense type of thing that I imagine, you know, most Twitter -- most social media editors should probably be doing.
GOLBECKYeah, that's very social media literate. As a social media editor you also handle Slate's content on other sites like Facebook. Do you have a different strategy for correcting your errors there?
STAHLYeah, so what Facebook has different than Twitter is it allows you to actually go in and edit your Facebook post. And what I had been doing until very recently was a similar type of thing where I would post a reply within the Facebook comment thread, just like in Twitter, that issued the correction and corrected the mistake. But now what Facebook allows you to do is to actually go in, fix the mistake and, you know, with -- not the correction at the bottom of the post, which is what we will do the second we have our next Facebook correction.
STAHLIt hasn't come up yet on Facebook since I realized they have that feature but it's pretty much a very similar process except I can actually correct the mistake. And it's similar to what we do on our webpage -- on our website, which is to correct the error and then mark at the bottom that the correction has been made. But actually change the copy to make it correct.
GOLBECKOverall does Slate have the same accuracy standards on social media as it does on its actual regular site?
STAHLI would say Slate has a very good culture of trying to, you know, make sure that we are very transparent to our readers and that, you know, we don't want a memory hole, any mistakes, so to speak. It's a term that our editor in chief David Plotz uses. And, you know, I like to think that had I not been, you know, a part of that culture, I still would have the sense to, you know, use my judgment to have a similar correction policy. But it definitely helps being in an organization that is so -- that, you know, has that sense.
GOLBECKJeremy Stahl, social media editor for Slate. Thanks very much for joining us.
GOLBECKNow I'd like to bring in Shani Hilton. She's deputy editor-in-chief for BuzzFeed who just issued its corrections policy last month. Shani, thanks for joining us.
MS. SHANI HILTONHi.
GOLBECKSo I had a great time reading BuzzFeed's public corrections policy. The Slate -- BuzzFeed's been around for eight years. What prompted you to publish an official corrections policy this year?
HILTONWell, we've just been in the process of revising our corrections policy. It's something that we've been -- we'd had internally and had to revise a little bit to make it more streamlined and work better for our particular culture. And we were in the process of deciding to publish our style guide and the corrections policy is a part of the style guide. So it just all went up online.
GOLBECKHow did you develop a corrections policy that you thought worked for BuzzFeed and for your readers?
HILTONSo obviously there are traditional parts of the corrections policy that, you know, you want to be transparent. You want to make sure that your readers know what's going on and that you're not hiding anything from them. And then in terms of BuzzFeed, I mean, what we think about is speed. And so it should be really equally as speedy to fix a story as it is to get it up. And that is kind of a motivating force behind our corrections policy.
GOLBECKBuzzFeed's policy says the corrections tone should match the tone of the article. BuzzFeed is pretty well known for its list-icals. Recent headlines include 18 unexpected side effects of being an adult and 36 painfully adorable pictures of puppies at bath time, which by the way I looked at. And though I found them adorable, I'm not sure it rose to the level of painfully adorable. What would a correction to one of those stories sound like?
HILTONSo, you know, if, you know, the correction for a list would often be something like, woops, you know, we got this wrong to the commenter who pointed it out. The tone is just generally a little bit more in the style of the post. So, you know, it can be fun. It can be a little self-effacing.
GOLBECKWhat do you think, Erik Wemple, about this and also the rise of list-icals?
WEMPLEWell, I mean, I applaud BuzzFeed. I like their style guides. I particularly like their embrace of the serial comma, which I wrote about and which is sort of on the side here. But, you know...
WEMPLE...and not to bust on BuzzFeed at all, but it -- you know, writing the policy for corrections is the simplest thing on earth. You know, actually implementing and following of these great guidelines and ideals is a much different matter. And journalists are tested every time because the journalist's first instinct, as Craig discussed earlier, is to of course resist a correction. And so I think it does take something I think BuzzFeed has beefed up in this area. It takes editors and good editors to force -- oftentimes to force corrections down the throats of their people.
WEMPLESo -- but absolutely, having a policy to which editors can point is very helpful because I think that it talks about institutional priorities and such. And it helps to build the culture that Jeremy was talking about.
GOLBECKAnd so correcting your painfully cute puppies who may be misidentified as a yellow lab instead of a golden retriever would get an oops from BuzzFeed. But you do have a policy in really fact-based news stories which BuzzFeed also does as explicitly labeling them as corrections.
HILTONYeah, absolutely. A correction on a news story would say, you know, correction whatever the issue is. And then you say what they said.
WEMPLERight. So Shani, that is basically an indictment of the update scourge, right? When you have a correction you can't label an update, which is an absolute or has been...
HILTONYeah, updates are completely reserved for updates. Correction is for when we got something wrong.
WEMPLEHave you -- did you find out when you were doing the policy that BuzzFeed had had a history of doing the update in lieu of correction?
HILTONNo, I didn't actually find that to be true.
GOLBECKOn this note I'd like to take a call from Paul in Arlington. Paul, thanks for being patient. You're on the air. Go ahead.
PAULHi. I'm involved in the Passenger Rail Consumer Advocacy movement. And obviously we're concerned about accurate coverage of passenger rail issues in the news. And one thing that I found that's almost universal in reporters, regardless of whether they're print or broadcast or internet is that whenever they talk about how long it takes to get by Amtrak from one point to another, they routinely inflate the amount of time by anywhere I'd say from 25 percent to 150 percent.
PAULAnd that's not talking about a particular train that might've been late. That's just a blanket statement about how long it takes to get from one place to another. And I've often submitted corrections about that and I've had a terrible history of getting them published. And I'm just wondering, is it possible -- and I should say that's particularly true of the New York Times -- and I'm wondering is it possible that some news organizations have such a vendetta against certain individuals or subjects such as Amtrak maybe that they pretty much absolutely refuse to publish a correction of a derogatory mistake about that individual or organization.
GOLBECKPaul, thanks for the call. So this gets to the issue of if corrections on certain types of articles get treatment -- or certain topics get different treatment. Craig, do you have a thought on that?
SILVERMANIf we take the Times as a specific example, they've -- they have one of the larger kind of corrections infrastructure, if I could call it that, where they have people who basically almost their entire job is focused on corrections. Because, as you can imagine, there are a lot of people who love to point out errors in the New York Times.
SILVERMANSo if I was to imagine myself as one of these people right now, these people that I've interviewed, I'm sure they would say absolutely not. There's no vendetta. They -- a correction report comes in and they check it. You know, if I could make a suggestion on that. Trying to figure out why this is constantly misreported might help figure out a good kind of correction strategy on it. Are they going to check a timetable somewhere? Is there inaccurate information provided on sites that come up high in Google?
SILVERMANYou know, if you'd sort of think like a reporter for a second, chances are, you know, when they realize they need to see how long it is, they're going to Google that, what's coming up and where are they getting that information from? If you can provide -- point them to a more credible source, explain why that same corrector thinks like that, you may find it gets through a little bit more.
SILVERMANYou know, I couldn't speak to whether there's a conscious effort. I'm sure anyone from the Times would say that there isn't. But sometimes, you know, helping -- you can actually get -- be more effective with your correction if you can actually show the reporter, listen, here's the source you went to or here's where you got it from. Here are three other places that are very credible or even more credible that I would encourage you to look at next time.
SILVERMANAnd if you can give them a tool or a place to go to, you may find that that's even more effective -- and I'm not saying you should stop asking for corrections -- then just asking for the correction. If I could make that suggestion.
GOLBECKShani, if we bring this back around to BuzzFeed, your correction policy interestingly asks BuzzFeed writers to give credit to whatever user pointed out the error. What role do you think your readers play in keeping your site accurate?
HILTONWell, we're in conversation with our readers all the time. I mean, that's part of what BuzzFeed does, which is we cover the internet. We think about the internet. We're a part of the internet. And so often the conversation is kind of an informal -- there's a lot of informal fact checking that goes on on Twitter and on Facebook. And so if you see a reader point something out that's wrong on Twitter as you're looking at who's Tweeting your story, then it's just good internet etiquette to say, hey, thanks to that person as you correct it.
GOLBECKShani Hilton, deputy editor-in-chief for BuzzFeed. Thanks again very much for joining us.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation about errors and accuracy in the media after this short break. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Erik Wimple and Craig Silverman about corrections, errors and accuracy in the media. If you'd like to join us call 1-800-433-8850. I have a lot of emails coming through that are asking about situations where facts are contested or, this being Washington, where a political party or advocacy group is pushing a narrative that's either partially true or just ingenuous or just plain false.
GOLBECKI'd like to get both of your thoughts on how that plays into corrections in the media. Erik, let's start with you.
WEMPLESo the question is just how innuendos move through the system and...
GOLBECKWell, you may get someone -- so you may publish an article and you may get someone saying that there should be a correction to it. So if we pick an extreme example, you publish an article about vaccines, and you get people writing in saying, you know, advocating the position that vaccines are really bad for you and they shouldn't be given, and you need to correct your article that says vaccines are good for you.
WEMPLEOh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, yes. You know, basically sorting through what is a factual assertion and what is not a factual assertion is sort of half the battle. And when you do publish on these sorts of things, you know, hot-button issues -- whether it's vaccines or abortion, anything like that -- you have to be really careful about what is a fact and what isn't. That said, you know, it's ultimately the news organization's call as to whether it publishes the correction. And, you know, and they basically lay themselves out there.
WEMPLEI would cite, as an example, something like with the Daily Caller. The Daily Caller -- and I'm sure Craig remembers this one -- they reported back, a couple years ago, maybe a year and a half ago, I'm not quite sure, that the EPA was looking for 230,000 more employees, that they wanted their budget to go up by some astronomical number. And actually that was in a court filing in which the EPA was sort of facetiously saying that, if the EPA had to do all the stuff that Congress mandated, they would need 230,000 more employees.
WEMPLEWell, anyway, the Daily Caller phrased it as the EPA, big government, is looking for 230,000 more employees.
WEMPLEAnd I believe, as I recall, they basically stated it straight up, soberly, that this is what was going on. Everybody went berserk, including the EPA, and saying that, Daily Caller, you need to make a correction. The Daily Caller, unless something has changed, basically stonewalled -- said that the people who were pushing for a correction were politically motivated and has defied the correction. Craig, do I have all that right?
SILVERMANIt definitely sounds on point to me, yeah.
WEMPLEAnd so they have basically -- this was something that they claimed was, you know, sort of that middle ground between a fact and maybe rhetoric or a hyperbole, or whatever. But, you know, to me it looked like a factual assertion and they seemed to represent it. And they fought back saying that people were just -- they cited the left-leaning motivations of the people who were yelling at them. But that's, I think, an example of this, where you have...
WEMPLE...a news organization that is sitting there getting this massive amount of, you know, correction requests from all over the place and just basically saying no, no, no. And, you know, I think that it's -- there are instances as well -- and I'd ask Craig to provide an example -- instances as well of a news organization that has gotten massive amounts of correction requests and they were right, you know, to basically -- to resist.
GOLBECKCraig, I'd like your thoughts both on what Erik just raised and on the issue more broadly.
SILVERMANYeah, so when it comes to -- correction requests are actually, in some cases, being used as a weapon at this point in time, where you do have organizations who -- just like they, you know, they would do letter-to-the-editor campaigns in the past -- getting people to inundate news organizations with correction requests. Sometimes they're valid, sometimes they're not. But, you know, this is where, and Erik sort of alluded to it in talking about bus-feed, where the rubber meets the road is, you know, how do you actually do these things on a daily basis?
SILVERMANWhat's your workflow and you're culture around getting corrections done, because if you're not able to actually deal with these requests, then sometimes, you know, corrections just aren't given because they get lost and people can't deal with them. So that's, you know, that's one side of it. I think the other one where people often get really frustrated with news organizations is when there's an opinion column that cites, you know, cites a few facts, and maybe one or two of those facts turns out to be incorrect.
SILVERMANOften what people want is for the opinion column to be retracted because the opinion was based on, you know, these facts that have turned out to be incorrect. And, you know, that's -- and these are where, you know, there's facts and there's judgment calls, and they often become intertwined. And I think that that can be really frustrating for readers at times, because they sort of feel like, well, wait a minute, one of your central facts has now disappeared. What are you going to do about your argument now?
SILVERMANYou know, apart from that, the other piece of this is, I think there is a lot of work and a lot of money being put into confusing people and raising doubt around issues that are particularly contentious, whether it's, you know, vaccines, climate change or what have you. I mean, the model, obviously, would be the tobacco industry and what they had tried to do in sort of keeping the question open as to whether cigarettes are harmful or not. And there's a lot of that.
GOLBECKWe got a...
SILVERMANOh, sorry. Go ahead.
GOLBECKNo, no, that's fine. I was just going to say we got an email from Kim on an issue related to what we're talking about here. She cites a correction from The New York Times this month. The article originally read something like, Japanese scientists object to government squelching of Fukushima research. And it was changed to read, concerns over measurement of Fukushima fallout, with the correction, an earlier version of the headline with this article misstated the actions of the Japanese government. There are deep differences over how to determine the health impact of the Fukushima disaster.
GOLBECKThe authorities are not squelching efforts to measure the effects of the accident. And Kim sees this as an example of government or corporations demanding corrections and effectively bullying a news organization. She said, "This is a particularly Orwellian story about what could fairly be considered squelching of research on a very controversial international news story. So I'd like either of your thoughts on that. Craig, maybe you first?
SILVERMANWell, you know, so not having, you know, read the article and know the background on the issue, my guess is that the correction probably, you know, I don't know what kind of pressure was exerted on The Times, but certainly the corrections, to me, seems to fall under, you know, an editor looking at this and saying, you know what, we really editorialized by using that word, and maybe we shouldn't have done that. That's my guess as to what happened. But it is, you know, a guess, in not knowing all the background on it.
WEMPLEI mean squelching is a good powerful word...
WEMPLE...if you have the facts to back it up. I like it.
WEMPLEI like it and, you know, one of the things that you hear a lot in newsrooms is, like, reporters and editors saying, oh, that's inflammatory. Oh, that word's inflammatory. And sometimes inflammatory and accuracy are not, you know, mutually exclusive. Sometimes stuff is...
WEMPLE...inflammatory because it needs to be and is inflammatory. And so, yeah, it's hard to say, without knowing. But that definitely happens. I mean, you know, the way journalism now is so hooked up with PR, every flak has a direct pipe to the reporter. Craig, correct me if I'm wrong on this, but every flak has a direct pipe to the reporter, to the editor. They see that headline come up on the Web. They attack immediately. And it's really quick. It's really strong. And, yes, the, you know, call it bullying, whatever, I don't think the public will have much sympathy for, you know, the press getting bullied.
WEMPLEThey probably like to see that. But yeah, that sort of connectivity between the media and sort of the flaks and the PR people for organizations is direct and immediate and that can happen.
GOLBECKWe're talking about errors, corrections and accuracy in the media with Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, and Craig Silverman, who writes "Regret the Error." And if you'd like to join us, you can call 1-800-433-8850. Let's go to the phones now and take a call from John in Silver Spring. John, you're on the air. Go ahead.
JOHNHi, there. Yeah, I wanted to also bring up something I saw recently, I think it was in The Times, about this supposed journalism site called vice.com, which rather arrogantly and proudly states that they're not interested in being objective at all. And they don't think it's possible. And so they're not going to be. And to my mind this really seems to be something that's going on a lot in online journalism. And it makes me worry about the spreading of disinformation.
WEMPLEErik, I saw you nodding your head as he was talking about this. Do you have thoughts on it?
WEMPLEYeah, I mean, I would disagree with -- I mean, I think that this is just, you know, a statement of a fact here, that, you know, and this is something of a trend out there. The journalists want to tell you where they're coming from. They don't pretend to be neutral on something. And I think that sometimes that can give readers, viewers, listeners, whatever, a little more context to figure out where this person's coming from. And sometimes, I think, it can help them sort of navigate this news environment in ways that they couldn't before.
WEMPLEWhat I think Vice is -- and I'm going to -- quite sure Vice is lashing out again -- is the notion of sort of false neutrality, where, you know, in legacy situations, New York Times, ABC News, whatever you have -- whatever have you, there is a notion that these are perfectly neutral arbiters of the news, when we all know that whenever you get human thumbs on the scale, the scale tends to tilt. So that's what I think Vice is trying to basically renounce and refuse to participate in.
GOLBECKWe have a call from Mike in Silver Spring. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead.
MIKEHi. Thanks for taking my call.
GOLBECKThanks for calling.
MIKEYou're welcome. Yes, I was going to refer the guests and the public out there to an in-depth interview that Amy Goodman did -- she hosts Democracy Now -- an interview with the prime minister of Japan, who at the time was -- of the Fukushima disaster was in office and his experience with TEPCO, trying to get accurate information about what the dangers were of the radiation leakage and what to -- how to prepared and in his trying to prepare for evacuation of 50 million people in Tokyo. And that he could not get accurate information. He actually had to go onsite and talk to the civil engineers there to actually find out what was going on.
GOLBECKYeah, Mike, so you're raising this interesting point of cases where we're really given totally incorrect facts and then need to go back and correct that. Craig, what's your thought on issues like this one?
SILVERMANWell, you know, it's interesting. I recently worked on a project for a book called "The Verification Handbook," and we actually had a case study written by people from the Japanese public broadcaster. And they talked about how, you know, in the wake of that earthquake, they really struggled also with this issue of, you know, of the nuclear power plants, because they didn't have a lot of journalists with a lot of expertise about how nuclear power plants work. And so they had this information coming from the company, just like the prime minister was saying.
SILVERMANThat information, a lot of it was not credible and was not accurate. But they didn't actually have the internal expertise at this public broadcaster to be able to pull that apart. And so there's something there to be said, you know, one, about obviously, you know, verifying your sources and not just taking what they say as -- at face value. Two, you know news organizations sometimes struggle with a lack of expertise in certain areas, where a journalist has to try and come up to speed about something that might be very complicated. That's a challenge.
SILVERMANAnd, you know, so one of their solutions, actually, is that they have, I think it's several thousand cameras -- robot cameras positioned all over Japan so that, in the future, they won't have to necessarily rely on what a company tells them...
SILVERMAN...or even, you know, what an eyewitness might say. They're going to be able to look in cameras and see what's going on. It doesn't answer every question, but the other thing they're doing is training people in the areas where, you know, there might be disasters. So that's one way they're coping with it. But certainly cutting through spin where people are being willfully deceptive is a constant challenge. It's always been there.
GOLBECKWe have an email from Jonathan in Beltsville, Md., who says, "I think the best example of how errors should be corrected is on the ESPN show, 'Pardon the Interruption,' or PTI. They have a dedicated segment in the show that immediately corrects any errors that occur in it on the same day as the show. I think more shows, sports talk or not, should have this type of correction function. It shows that they care about getting things correct. It shows that people are human and will make mistakes. But it's not as big a deal if you admit to those errors and attempt to correct them."
GOLBECKAnd I'll add that, "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition" also have segments that I am a huge fan of that have listener letters and corrections. So, Craig, I'd like your thoughts on that first. What do you think about these kind of instantaneous or on-air corrections, especially if they're coming from viewers or listeners?
SILVERMANWell, one, they're very rare in broadcast settings. And, two, perhaps, in part, because they're so rare, they have this -- they create this really positive feeling from the person who wrote in, for you, where, Oh, this is great. This is a really nice service. It doesn't diminish my level of trust, in fact it increases it. So it's a wonderful thing. It's extremely rare. You know, studies that have been done around broadcast news, their error rate is often similar to newspapers. The amount of corrections you see on, you know, local newscasts or what have you, I mean, it's almost nonexistent.
SILVERMANThe one, you know, major, sort of national newscasts that I'll point out that tend to actually deal with corrections somewhat frequently, would be NBC Nightly News. They do an okay job and they often put corrections on their website as well. But, huge problem, when it comes to broadcasts that, you know, "Pardon the Interruption" and these ones are the exceptions.
WEMPLEAnd when Jake Tapper was at ABC and subbing in on the Sunday morning show, did he not do some sort of alliance with PolitiFact?
SILVERMANThat's right. There was a -- where there was...
WEMPLESo they, for a while...
SILVERMAN...fact checking from the segment. Yeah.
WEMPLERight. For a while. But, yeah, people don't do that too much.
GOLBECKAnd it is easier to do on a sport show where there's hard statistics and it's easy to see if you've mistakenly stated them.
WEMPLERight. And, you know, the other possible sort of risk there is that in, you know, in their haste to correct every possible mistake, sometimes their corrections might be wrong, when then creates something of a fraud. But, anyway...
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Kathy in Gaithersburg, Md. Kathy, you're on the air. Go ahead.
KATHYHi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to ask for the literal story and ask if it was the appropriate response. About 20 years ago I was living in San Francisco and -- I'm an archeologist -- and there was an article about an archeological site. And the author of the article, the journalist, made what or had in their article the word savage-site archeology. And the term is salvage-site archeology, with an "l" meaning a site that needs to be rescued because it's in danger. And I assumed that maybe it was this typo from, you know, it wasn't even the author, possibly.
KATHYSo I sent a letter to the editor, saying, Hey, a Native American site is not a savage site, I think they meant salvage. I got the nastiest letter back from the columnist telling me that I was wrong to write to the editor, that I was putting their job in jeopardy.
KATHYThat he was absolutely certain that they had this term right. And how dare I correct them? And I thought that was really kind of unprofessional.
SILVERMANThere's all kinds of wrong going on there. Yeah. Wow. Because that's an example of like the horrible culture where the columnist, you know, is so afraid to have anyone point out their mistake. And then that reaction is just completely unbelievable.
KATHYYeah, and I was trying to save them, because I was afraid they were going to slammed by the Native American community for calling them savages.
GOLBECKThat's a decent one to get slammed for, I think.
WEMPLEYeah, yeah. I would think so.
SILVERMANIt's an l.
KATHYWell, I'm glad to hear that I didn't make a mistake by writing to the editor.
GOLBECKNice work with that correction, Kathy. Thanks for calling.
GOLBECKWe also got an email from Christine, who says, "What can you do if someone's reputation is being tarnished by inaccurate information published on purpose? I know someone whose next job prospects are shaky due to bad information posted on blogs." So I know we're not talking about blogs, but, Erik, at the break, we were reading this email and you said you actually get a lot of requests to purge archives.
WEMPLERight, when I was at City Paper, we would get -- and this grew over my time there as the digital journalism grew and the massive archives online grew -- but people would constantly call and say, can you please take down this story. It is ruining my changes to get a job, because it's the first thing that comes up in a Google search. And we would make amend -- make changes only if there was a factual error. And nine times out of ten, or ten times out of ten, they would say, No, there's nothing factually wrong. But it's just screwing me over. And so, we would say, No.
WEMPLEAnd, you know, there are things -- you can go to technical experts who are good at trying to suppress or clean up your Google ranking. That would be the best advice that I have for those people. And, you know, nine times out of ten, my -- okay.
GOLBECKOh, okay. I didn't mean to cut you off there.
WEMPLEOkay. That's okay.
GOLBECKOkay. We have come about to the end of our time. But I'd like to thank both of our guests, Erik Wemple, media critic for The Washington Post. Thanks very much for joining us.
WEMPLEPleased to be here.
GOLBECKThank you. And Craig Silverman, who writes "Regret the Error", for Poynter, joining us from Montreal. Thanks very much.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
As the price of generic drugs has spiked, legislators and others are questioning the role of this multi-billion dollar industry in our health care system.
We chat with D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier about the city's strategy to combat the spike in violent crime taking place in the nation's capital.