behind the news

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

Alessandra Stanley’s troubling history of error
July 24, 2009

Alessandra Stanley has fallen back into old habits. This week, the New York Times television critic was responsible for a long, embarrassing correction:

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

In fairness, I’ll emphasize that the story’s seventh mistake was the result of an editing error. But six errors in a story she had ample time to work on and check is not acceptable, especially for a reporter with such a troubling history of error.

In 2005, a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote about her inaccuracies, and others followed up. She became a marked woman. Stanley didn’t do herself any favors. She misspelled the name of the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond. She accused Geraldo of a nudge that never was. She mistook “trustiness” for “truthiness,” and invited the wrath of Stephen Colbert. She upset ABC News after making errors and questionable claims about Charlie Gibson. And she confused Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Garner. On their own, none of these are particularly egregious offenses, though the Geraldo incident was ridiculous. The problem is that she keeps making mistakes.

This week she delivered perhaps her most inaccurate article to date. News broke about Walter Cronkite’s poor health well before he passed away. This gave Stanley ample time to work on her piece. She could have checked the date that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, or the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. She didn’t.

I’ve received e-mails from a few people who wonder if Stanley deserves the level of criticism and scrutiny that she continues to receive. The truth is that, at this point, it’s hard to generate sympathy. She’s the one providing people with ammunition.

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Too often, her articles include errors about information that should be common knowledge to someone who makes a living writing about TV. Or she flubs easy to verify facts. Things that you could check within about a minute of Googling and reading. Gawker’s post about this week’s errors noted that the relevant Wikipedia entries managed to get their facts straight. “Alessandra Stanley would actually benefit by checking her facts on Wikipedia,” wrote Hamilton Nolan. Ouch.

But when you’re a critic for The New York Times, you simply can’t make these kind of mistakes and expect to escape scrutiny. Or, yes, mockery.

Back in 2005, Gawker used Nexis to conduct a corrections-per-article study of Times columnists. It discovered Stanley was, at the time, the paper’s most error-prone columnist. By the end of 2005, it seemed like everyone had taken their shots at her.

Then something remarkable happened. She got better.

Stanley has been responsible for nine corrections so far this year. By my count in Nexis, she had fourteen corrections in 2008, twelve in 2007, and fifteen in 2006. Averaging just over a correction a month is not something to be proud of. But that’s still better than before she attracted so much attention. Stanley had twenty-three corrections in 2005, the year everyone noticed her predilection for error, and twenty-six in 2004. Perhaps the decline in corrections between 2005 and 2006 was in part due to the attention focused on her.

Given this week’s correction, however, I have to conclude that scrutiny alone isn’t enough to solve the problem.

A couple of years ago, I was told by a Times editor that the union contract allows managers to bring up a reporter’s correction rate during a performance review. Given the attention her errors have attracted, I assume Stanley has been spoken to about this. Maybe it was another factor that caused her drop in corrections in 2006. Unfortunately, the truth is that actions taken by her and the paper haven’t been enough.

I don’t know the circumstances that led to this week’s errors. But if you’re Alessandra Stanley, you simply can’t make mistakes like these in a single article. I have to assume she takes accuracy seriously, and not just because she knows Gawker is paying attention. But whatever system she has for checking her work isn’t sufficient. The same goes for how the copy desk is handling her articles. The Times can let her twist in the wind with errors like these, or realize this situation is hurting the organization and come up with a training program that helps her stop making simple factual errors at such an alarming rate.

There’s a problem here, and it’s as much about the organization as it is about Alessandra Stanley.

Correction of the Week

“An interview purporting to be with Banksy in last Saturday’s Guide (One last thing . . . , 18 July, page 98, the Guide) was, it transpires, conducted with someone impersonating the graffiti artist. We apologise to Banksy for this error and for any offence and inconvenience caused.” – The Guardian

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.