Three Strikes and You’re Fired

When the punishment for factual inaccuracy doesn't fit the crime

Matt McCann wasn’t supposed to spend his summer working for St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

For the second year in a row, McCann, a journalism student at St. Thomas, had landed a summer internship at the Telegraph-Journal. But that ended abruptly in May when he was fired a day after the paper published a story of his on the front page.

McCann’s article reported that roughly 100 faculty and staff from the University of New Brunswick had signed a letter protesting the school’s decision to award Premier Shawn Graham an honorary degree. After it was published, representatives from the university called the paper’s publisher and editor to talk about the article.

“We were really looking to elaborate our position,” UNB communications manager Dan Tanaka told the Toronto Star. “We felt we were given a minor mention at the bottom of the story.”

Apart from that gripe, the story contained three factual errors. McCann misspelled a person’s last name (“Stropel” instead of “Strople”) and title (“university secretary for UNB Fredericton” instead of “university secretary for UNB”). He also reported that the premier has an education degree from UNB—when, in fact, he has a physical education degree.

The errors were easily preventable and should not have appeared in the story. As far as them being a firing offense, however, I’ve never heard of anyone being let go for mistakes of this nature. Far more experienced journalists have repeatedly made worse mistakes and kept their jobs. Certainly that’s nothing to be proud of, but the Telegraph-Journal held McCann to a standard that other staffers can’t possibly meet.

So, yes, the errors guy is sticking up for someone who admittedly made three sloppy mistakes. Almost no one should be fired for making three factual errors. We all make them. What matters is that you learn from them, correct them, and work to prevent them in the future. Firing someone doesn’t teach him how to be more accurate. It could also create a culture of fear in the newsroom.

Philip Lee, a professor in the journalism department at St. Thomas, defended his student in part by admitting that “…if I had been held to the same standard, I never would have had a career in journalism.”

I think that’s true for a large number of working journalists. In fact, a very high-profile journalist recently admitted to a far greater transgression.

This week it was revealed that the new book from Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine and author of the bestselling book The Long Tail, includes unattributed passages taken from Wikipedia.

After the theft was revealed by the Virginia Quarterly Review, Anderson quickly responded and admitted his mistakes. He attributed his failure of attribution to a mix of carelessness and a debate with his publisher about the proper way to cite material from Wikipedia.

Some people have raked Anderson over the coals. But he’s also received the full backing of his publisher. Other people, including the person who discovered the theft in the first place, are giving him the benefit of the doubt.

There’s no proof to suggest Anderson consciously tried to rip off the Wikipedia entries. But he did put them in his book without proper attribution. That’s a big mistake. There’s also no evidence that McCann was consciously trying to make the university look bad in his story. Whether he did or not is highly debatable, though the errors aren’t.

Both journalists were sloppy. But they have received very different treatment at this point.

Different media organizations often have very different ways of dealing with errors or incidents of plagiarism. Likewise, there will often be different rules for different people within an organization itself. A contract worker or intern such as McCann will typically be dismissed much faster than a union member or long-time employee. The longer you’re there, the more of a track record you have. You get the benefit of the doubt. That’s fair and understandable on one level, but at the same time, standards should be applied equally.

Shawna Richer, the paper’s editor, has faced criticism for her decision to fire McCann. She insists the factual mistakes combined with the one-sided nature of the story to make it a deal breaker. Yet even the university spokesman told the Star that he was “surprised” to hear McCann was let go. In spite of their concerns, they didn’t ask for him to lose his job. (Read the story for yourself and decide if it’s so lacking in fairness and balance that the author deserves to be drummed out of a summer contract.)

The story of McCann’s firing eventually made its way to local radio in Saint John. During the report, a former editor of the paper in question suggested that the publisher, Jamie Irving, made McCann the scapegoat in order to maintain good relations with the governing party. That suggestion caused the Telegraph-Journal to respond with a story headlined, “CBC runs baseless story with no regard for facts or truth.”

From the story, which doesn’t match the aggressive tone of the headline:

“These kinds of errors of fact and judgment don’t constitute acceptable journalism at the Telegraph-Journal. We must cover stories with integrity, clarity and absolute accuracy,” Shawna Richer, the newspaper’s editor, said.

In a conversation that day with Richer, McCann acknowledged the errors but “did not seem to fully grasp the seriousness of them,” Richer said. “He was not a first-year intern. He worked here last summer. We expected more of him.”

Richer says the call was hers alone and no one pressured her. The paper has also acknowledged that McCann’s story was, obviously, reviewed by editors. After all, they deemed it good enough to warrant major front page placement. Those editors have all kept their jobs.

But if we accept Richer’s standard for fairness and accuracy, then I’m afraid to say that someone else at her paper needs to lose their job. If you read the online version of the article, you’ll notice that McCann’s three factual errors—which were deemed so bad that they were a major cause of his firing—are still in the article. The paper hasn’t corrected them. Those errors are still causing damage, and it was someone’s job to fix them in the online version, not to mention issue a correction.

So who else is going to lose their job? Or is it possible that the standard being enforced by the paper doesn’t apply to anyone but McCann?

Correction of the Week

“In a June 15 story about DF Indie Studios, The Associated Press reported erroneous claims by the company and founders Mary Dickinson and Charlene Fisher. In a news release and in interviews, DF Indie Studios and the founders said their movies will be produced by such Hollywood figures as Ridley and Tony Scott. Dickinson and Fisher also said they had $300 million in loans and distribution deals and were halfway to raising $100 million in equity. However, DF Indie Studios now acknowledges that it has not finalized its line of credit, its equity investments or all of its distribution deals. And a representative for the Scotts’ production company says it has no business or contractual relationship with DF Indie Studios.” – Associated Press

Wrong Ray

“A brief report in the Inside the List column last Sunday about the crime writer Michael Connelly misstated the history of an apartment he once rented as a studio. It was used in the making of the 1973 film version of Raymond Chandler’s ‘Long Goodbye.’ It was not the former apartment of Raymond Carver.” – The New York Times

Parting Shot

“We mistakenly suggested that greater gender inequality increases the instance of female mathematicians in a country. Of course that should have been gender equality (6 June, p 7).” – New Scientist

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.