Close to fifty columns later, 2010 is coming to an end for Regret the Error. I spent this week looking over the interviews and links that I collected in order to tease out the most notable quotes from a year in the life of this column. Below are the results of my digging: a collection of comments that speak to the problems and positive developments that marked the year in accuracy, errors and verification.
Quotes of the Year
One realization for me in 2010 was the need for the average person to greatly improve their news literacy and verification skills. (I wrote about the role that journalists can play in helping make this happen.) The rise of social media and the fragmenting of the news landscape makes it essential for everyone to be able to separate fact from fiction, and critically examine what they see, read and hear.
“With the Internet we have so many people who are not traditional journalists breaking so many stories, so we have to face the fact that it’s no longer just people in the newsroom who are providing the first look at the news. And we need to improve their skills.”
“Are we going to have a world filled with people who pass along urban legends and hoaxes?” Rheingold said, “or are people going to educate themselves about these tools [for crap detection] so we will have collective intelligence instead of misinformation, spam, urban legends, and hoaxes?”
One of my most enjoyable conversations over the past year was with Tom Rosenstiel, the co-author of Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload and the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. His thoughts about the current age of news and information fit well with Rheingold’s views:
We now live in a user controlled media world. People are their own editors, and the ability of the press to function as a gatekeeper over what the public sees, or to force-feed the public what it should know, is over. Our public discourse is now going to be a collaboration between citizens and consumers of information, and the sources from which they get that information. The real gap in the twenty-first century is not between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t; it’s between those who have skills to navigate the information, and those who are overwhelmed by it and escape that sense of overwhelming by just going to the sources that make them feel comfortable, or to points of view that are comforting and familiar.
I was very encouraged when the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge contest announced that “authenticity” would be one of its four new categories. This means we will likely see some new accuracy/verification/credibility projects emerge next year. I spoke with John Bracken, Knight’s director of digital media, and he explained why this area is seen as important for the News Challenge:
In and around the news industry there is a need for the ability to be able to discern more information about who is speaking and imbue degrees of reliability around what they’re speaking about. Something we all deal with in the course of our everyday lives is determining who is speaking, how much I rely on them and how can I understand who they are and where they’re coming from.
Online is where everything has been going and will continue to be going. It should be the leading edge of this, but it’s very much behind print and broadcast.
And here are some key findings from said survey:
We found that of the websites of 35 leading daily newspapers we examined, 25 provide no link to a corrections page or archive of current and past corrections on their websites’ home pages and article pages. Only about half, 17 of the 35, provide a corrections policy of any kind Sixty percent of the newspaper sites (21 of 35) do provide an explicit channel (email, phone, or Web form) for the public to report an error to the newsroom
One of the more unlikely people to offer some solid accuracy adviceover the past year was Ben Huh, the CEO of the Cheezburger Network. Here’s what he told me about the public’s expectation of accuracy from journalists:
They expect you to not get somebody’s name incorrect or to create horrendously bad headlines. We have a higher standard of expectation from journalists, so when they don’t meet it it’s funny—like watching a monkey fall off a tree.
Matt DeRienzo, publisher of The Register Citizen, an 8,000-circulation paper serving Litchfield County, Conn., spoke with me about his paper’s decision to put a small “Fact Check” box at the bottom of every article. It includes this encouragement for readers: “See wrong or inaccurate information in a story. Tell us here.” Here’s what he told me:
Readers should not have to come knocking on your door to try to find an editor or reporter. It should be a much more open process than that This is just being very clear to readers [and saying] that we want you to send in errors, we’re listening, there is someone on the other end.
I wrote a column about the concept of crowdsourced verification, and used Ushahidi’s work in Haiti after this year’s earthquake as a case study. (That column also highlighted SwiftRiver, a new product built to meet the challenge of this form of verification.) Here’s what Jaroslav Valuch, the project manager for Ushahidi Haiti, told me:
These days, forget about having 100 percent verified information—but you can have trusted sources or things with high probability.
Along those same lines, I dedicated a column to the examination of an errant tweet from MSNBC.com’s @BreakingNews account that set off a cascade of retweets. MSNBC journalist Alex Johnson and I unpacked the tweet and its aftermath to draw some lessons from the incident. Johnson also offered an interesting explanation of MSNBC.com’s approach to running that Twitter account:
The buzz word around here is that @BreakingNews is iterative journalism, so [we try to make sure] you can see the process, and if we screw up you will see the screw up, and we owe it to you to explain how and why that happened. The more we let users and followers in on how that’s evolving, the better it is for us and for the entire form.
During a Q&A with Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, he highlighted a challenge the paper faced in trying to quickly issue corrections for mistakes in online content:
Corrections for obvious errors in online stories often get delayed while editors wait for the correction to be approved for publication in the newspaper. As I wrote, that’s “unacceptable” because it increases the odds that inaccurate information will go viral.
There was a lot of discussion this year about the National Enquirer, thanks to its scoop about John Edwards’s affair. I spoke with Barry Levine, the executive editor/director of news at the publication, to see how it practices verification. He ended up listing a variety of ways in which the Enquirer tries to check its facts, including this:
If we have very revealing information about a celebrity or newsmaker, we will have the source sit down and be administered a polygraph test based on specific questions about what they told us.
The plight of copy editors at newspapers and other publications was a much-discussed topic in 2009. I decided to shine a light on a less-discussed group of newspaper employees who have also seen their numbers thinned in recent years: research librarians, also known as news librarians. I wrote about their role—and disappearance—in the newsroom. Here’s how Leslie Norman, a former news librarian at the Wall Street Journal, explained the importance of what they do:
Reporters are on deadline and they want to do things as quickly as possible. Over years, they’ve come to feel, ‘I can do my own research, I don’t need an intermediary anymore.’ Some of the problem with that is they don’t have time to get the best research if they do it themselves. Also, because of the amount of information out there, they may not have the understanding or wherewithal to go through and filter out what’s good and what isn’t.
This quote from a guest post by entrepreneur Ben Elowitz on PaidContent.org inspired me to write a column in response:
The old rules of quality prize correctness and are unforgivingly intolerant of errors in reporting. They are deeply invested in rigorous fact-checking; multiple source corroboration; and correct spelling of proper nouns. I’ve given interviews to old-media outlets where I’ve spent more time on the phone with the fact checker than with the reporter.
But of all the above offerings, I have to say that none of them rank as the most notable quote from a year’s worth of columns. That distinction goes to Axel Pult, a former fact checker who is now the deputy head of the checking and research department at Der Spiegel in Germany. While visiting their offices earlier this year to attend a fact checking conference, I discovered that the venerable German weekly is home to a remarkable checking operation. Here’s what Pult told me when I asked him about the size of the operation:
There are seventy people checking the facts, but also some people are working on handling the database and doing indexing, and stuff like that. It’s almost 100 people, although some of the people only work part-time. It’s not 100 people working full-time. You can say about eighty full-time jobs.
Eighty full-time jobs for fact checkers and researchers! Nine months later, I still can’t believe it. Perhaps that’s a nice thought to enter the new year with. See you in 2011.
Correction of the Week
“A front-page story Sunday about a Buchanan High School wrestler accused of sexual battery said the ‘butt drag’ maneuver involves a wrestler putting fingers in his rival’s anus to get leverage. There’s no formal definition of the move, but coaches say it involves grabbing the butt cheek of a rival. Coaches vary on how often anal penetration occurs, but they say that it should never be intentional. The move does not involve skin-on-skin contact; the wrestler practicing the move is pushing his fingers against his opponent’s uniform.
“In addition, stories about the case on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday incorrectly said the wrestler had been expelled. He has been suspended pending an expulsion hearing.” - Fresno Bee