While that is unsurprising, it is also…worrisome. The Tribune story, after all, was riddled with red flags on the accuracy front. Not only was there the bizarre and inflammatory nature of Scalia’s supposed comment itself; there was also the choppy and occasionally verging-on-incoherent wording of the report—suggestive, in general, of some kind of context lost. But as the erroneous story made its way from Tucson to the explosive ether of the World Wide Web, those paving its path either missed those flags, or actively ignored them. As Salon’s Alex Koppleman notes:
Everyone gets a story wrong sometimes, there’s no avoiding that. But in this instance, the bloggers who picked up the article could and should have avoided the situation. Scalia was never directly quoted saying something like, “I think Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided. The article, or at least this part of it, relied on paraphrasing. On a big story like this one, the lack of a direct quote demands, even more than usual, some stringent fact-checking. Before posting, it’s just good practice to look for a primary source — video, audio or a transcript from the event — not to mention to check against Scalia’s previous statements and even call the court for comment. It may mean you have to wait a few minutes, even a few hours, before posting what others already have, but it’s better to be right than to be fast.
That’s true. And yet it’s also true, as Yale law professor and prolific blogger Jack Balkin—the person who actually realized that the Brown v. Board of Education reference was, indeed, a misquote—points out, that the blogs that linked the Scalia story were “relying on the fact that this was supposed to have been a fact-checked story by a reputable mainstream news organization.” They made a fair assumption that the information they were repeating for their readers was accurate. Though Balkin from the outset had (and expressed) doubts about the accuracy of the Brown quote in his post of the story—“Justice Scalia has always associated himself with Justice Harlan’s colorblindness language in Plessy,” he told me in an e-mail, explaining his initial skepticism about the quote—in this case, he writes, “the original duty was that of the mainstream media organization that published the piece in the first place.”
But that duty, I’d add, applies not merely to the original reporting of a story—getting it right—but also to the correction of reporting that turns out to be erroneous: getting it right for the long term. Accuracy—and, therefore, trust—are not mere matters of checking one’s facts before one posts a piece. Precision must be an ongoing process—and media outlets, be they staffed by one person or 100, must own up to their mistakes in an obvious, record-correcting, and generally transparent way. “Everyone gets a story wrong sometimes, there’s no avoiding that.” The test—and the trust—is in how outlets behave in the aftermath of error.
In the Scalia story—though one hesitates to revisit the tired old case of Bloggers v. MSM, which was decided (if, perhaps, by a split court) long ago—it’s striking, the disconnect between the correction strategies of the bloggers and of their MSM counterpart. When Balkin confirmed, through watching the video footage of the Scalia talk, that the Justice had indeed been misrepresented, he added the following lines to the top of his post:
As I suspected, Justice Scalia did not say he would have dissented in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The newspaper account is incorrect and took his remarks out of context. The author of the article, Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, owes Justice Scalia an apology.
And I apologize for quoting this incorrect article in my original post.