USA Today relearned a tough lesson this week when large chunks of a feature story published Aug. 8 about a businessman turned out not to be true. A quick search or two might have saved the paper from a great deal of embarrassment — not that search engines are infallible but they are a good place to start, especially when the details being offered include being a Boston Bruins’ draft pick, a Harvard hockey player and a number of other items likely to be logged in multiple places. Instant red flag if the name doesn’t turn up anything close. Instead, the inconsistencies came to light after publication; the paper published a follow-up today including an apology from a publicist but no apology of its own.
Steve Outing posted a correction today — and a mea culpa — for a post he made on Wikipedia based on what turns out to be a flawed Reuters’ article based on a German-language newspaper report based on an interview in English with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. He wasn’t the only one to pick up the story that — erroneously, according to Wales — said a change in policy was on the way that would freeze some articles. (Though, as far as I know, he’s the only one to correct it.) I saw the same story and put it aside until I could find out more but I just as easily could have popped it online without doing any legwork. After all, it was an interesting report from a trusted source; I post items on that basis all the time.
It’s almost tangential but I might as well bring it up before someone else does. Both of these cases are about mainstream media making mistakes. I can hear the comments now — I’ve seen enough of them — how can they complain about bloggers getting it wrong when they make mistakes like this? I’ll go back to kindergarten for this one: two wrongs don’t make a right. Sloppiness or mistakes in one category don’t excuse similar behavior in another. The difference here is that while it would be morally and ethically nice if everyone checked out everything before they post it — and, in most cases, a quick check or a moment’s thought would be deterrent enough — it’s the journalist’s job to do it. Even so, anyone who abuses the reader/listener/user/viewer’s trust will lose it no matter what they call themselves.
How far do we go in checking something out? How much do we challenge? How do we use information that should be shared but may not be provable? How do we decide when not to include information we know to be true? We hold a story back if it doesn’t ring right. We make judgment calls. We attribute. Inevitably, we have to take some things on face value. We correct our mistakes. And we try very hard not to make the same mistake twice.
Coda: I was about to post this when I did another search and found this story by Mike Eidelbes at InsideCollegeHockey.com, who saw the original USA Today piece and then started seeing red flags as he went from resource to resource without turning up Larry Twombly. He contacted USA Today reporter Stephanie Armour and was told they’d found discrepancies.