The New York Times posts a nasty correction on its Sunday op-ed by William Deresiewicz, who asserted that a study had found that 10 percent of people on Wall Street were “clinical psychopaths.”
That 10-percent-psycho baloney was the lead anecdote—critical framing for the whole op-ed. The Times has since re-written the lede paragraph almost entirely, disappeared the errors, and attached a correction at the very end of the story:
An earlier version of this article misstated the findings of a 2010 study on psychopathy in corporations. The study found that 4 percent of a sample of 203 corporate professionals met a clinical threshold for being described as psychopaths, not that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are clinical psychopaths. In addition, the study, in the journal Behavioral Sciences and the Law, was not based on a representative sample; the authors of the study say that the 4 percent figure cannot be generalized to the larger population of corporate managers and executives.
That’s not good enough. Here’s the original lede, which I snagged via Factiva:
THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ”clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an ”unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.
Here’s the lede, as rewritten:
THERE is an ongoing debate in this country about the rich: who they are, what their social role may be, whether they are good or bad. Well, consider the following. A 2010 study found that 4 percent of a sample of corporate managers met a clinical threshold for being labeled psychopaths, compared with 1 percent for the population at large. (However, the sample was not representative, as the study’s authors have noted.) Another study concluded that the rich are more likely to lie, cheat and break the law.
The NYT is effectively saying, “We originally said a study found 10 percent of Wall Streeters were psychopaths. But that was false. It really said 4 percent of executives are psychopaths. But even then, the study was not based on a representative sample, according to its own authors, which means that it’s just bullshit, which means that this op-ed is fatally flawed.”
But rather than say something like that, the paper just rewrites the false part—without noting it has done so until and unless you get to the very bottom of the piece. The Gray Lady doesn’t do strikethroughs, you know.
The “study” the original NYT piece linked to was an article in CFA Institute magazine, as Edward Jay Epstein writes at The Daily Beast. Actually, Epstein writes that the Times linked to an aggregated version of CFA’s story that ran in The Week, which itself was aggregating the story via other aggregators.
In other words, the Times’s false information was sourced from The Week, which sourced it, via aggregated posts at master aggregators Business Insider and Huffington Post, from CFA Institute magazine which sourced it, erroneously, from “Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare.”
This is telephone, press style. The Times was at least four derivative sources removed from the original source of the information. If anyone along the way messed it up, as the first reporter did, the whole chain was vulnerable. Some editor at the Times should have noticed that the column’s most eye-opening claim, one on which it hung its whole thesis, was sourced not to the APA or some academic journal, but to The Week, which in turn was sourcing it on down the line.
This isn’t to say that columnists and bloggers have to re-report everything that has already been reported elsewhere. But editors have to fact check the lede graph of a provocative, edited column in your paper of record that accuses a big chunk of people of being “clinical psychopaths.”
The worst part of this is that the 10-percent-psycho claim spread by CFA and aggregators was debunked more than two months ago by John M. Grohol, the editor of Psych Central, who thought the number sounded fishy and called up the author of the study.
The viral nature of this error shows why corrections, prominently displayed, are so critical. None of the articles in the telephone chain above have been corrected—even after the Times’s fix—and the Times itself has yet to correct its error in print.
That’s how misinformation becomes conventional wisdom.Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: Aggregation, Capitalism, Corrections, future of news, The New York Times