Posts about errors


Howard Kurtz screwed up, yes, but he also just showed an admirable example of accountability in apologizing on his CNN show Reliable Sources — saying that as a media critic he should be held to a higher standard of media trust — and then submitting to grilling by David Folkenflik of NPR and Dylan Byers of Politico. The video is here.

Our first mistake in journalism is to pretend that we don’t make mistakes. That hubris has gone before many a fall. Now, of course, our imperfection is no excuse, no cover to make mistakes. But knowing they will be made, the real question is what we do about them. That is when credibility is truly tested. Kurtz and CNN just set a new example for what to do.

Imagine if Dan Rather of CBS or Judith Miller of The New York Times had submitted to being interviewed by outside journalists not after some stupid remark but after reporting that was called into serious question.

The grilling of Kurtz started to verge on S&M. He admitted that he screwed up with his remarks about the NBA’s Jason Collins and apologized and then was made to admit it again and to admit prior screw-ups. I’m not looking for the hairshirt to become the new uniform of the journalist. Just getting beaten up won’t get us anywhere.

Such sessions could accomplish a few things. They can teach lessons; Kurtz said he wanted to learn from this episode and I don’t doubt he will be more careful before he makes another offhand remark. These sessions can also examine facts and try to get the fuller story.

The part of this story that’s still a bit baffling is Kurtz’ involvement in The Daily Download, mainly because — as Jay Rosen has been saying on Twitter — the site itself is baffling. I’m not sure what it wants to be. I’m not sure what the Knight Foundation expected it to accomplish with the substantial funding it was given. I’m not sure why Kurtz was involved in it on top of what for anyone else would be two full-time jobs and whether this played a role in his departure from the Daily Beast. If Kurtz was just helping a friend in Daily Download founder Lauren Ashburn, he was using his good offices at CNN — by having her on the air often and by calling on others for help — to do that. None of that might matter much. But if I were an editor reviewing reporting on the Kurtz story, these are questions I’d say are still unanswered. That’s not to say there is anything suspicious. Just unanswered.

In the post below, I disclose my relationship — or really my lack of one — with the Daily Download. I am no longer listed as a member of its board of advisers simply because that reflects reality. (I am still listed as such on the About page, but I’m sure that will be updated soon.)

My bottom line at this moment: I like and respect Kurtz and his work, and today I have another reason to respect him. I hope he continues on Reliable Sources because I think media need coverage on a mass media outlet.

Much more coverage of this Kurtz episode would be navel-gazing — or perhaps navel-piercing — for a very small corner of the media wonk world. What I hope this story becomes is not more whither-Howie wondering but instead an examination of how to handle the mistakes we will make.

I confess a journalistic sin

I just got off the phone with Bob Garfield of On the Media talking about the shooting in Connecticut and the discussion that ensued on Twitter around an account alleged to be that of the shooter. He called me because I screwed up — and particularly because I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up.

After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say “if this is the account of the killer, then…” Or I did not say this was the “alleged” or “reputed” account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn’t use them online. That was wrong. We don’t learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility.

I immediately tweeted that I should have added the conditional statement. I then erased the single tweet, which I hate doing because one should not try to eliminate the record. But on Twitter, there is no way to amend or correct a tweet — a fundamental structural problem, I think, but I’m not shifting blame to Twitter — and so it could continue to be retweeted and passed around.

As you know by now, it soon was reported that the original name was wrong. A person by that name was being questioned and his brother was identified in the press as the killer. Though as I write this, the police have still not verified either. So caveats still apply. And I am not using the names still.

Also, as this proceeded, the Twitter account associated with the first name got new tweets. That is apparent evidence that it was the wrong account. But even that is not foolproof as one can send delayed tweets. So nothing is certain. That is the important lesson.

Bob Garfield wanted me to shrug and say oops — such is news. I wouldn’t do that. Yes, this is news and we’ve all — not just journalists but also everyone who ever watches a breaking story on TV and now on the net — learned that facts change. But it was wrong. Bob also wanted me to blame haste. But I wouldn’t do that, either, for by that argument, one would need to wait hours, days, weeks, or even longer before reporting any facts and clearly that’s not going to happen.

No, we always need to be as diligent as possible about verifying facts — and listening to TV news, I’ve learned, is not sufficient. That includes now not just journalists but those who spread what they hear from journalists via Twitter, Facebook, et al. We need to be careful about saying what we don’t know or how we know what we’re saying. Those attributions and caveats are important. I left them out of my tweet. That was wrong, especially for me. I am sharing this here both to share the lesson. I’m sorry.

: LATER: Looking at Twitter reaction, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Twitter’s length; I could have fit an attribution and caveat in the tweet.

An ecology of accuracy

John Naughton’s Observer column this morning recounts the shitstorm the Wall Street Journal brought on itself with its innacurate and ignorant story on Google and content cashing (v. net neutrality) and concludes:

You might think this is all a storm in an online teacup, but in fact it’s a revealing case study of how our media ecosystem has changed. What happened is that reporters on a major newspaper got something wrong. Nothing unusual about that – and the concept of “network neutrality” is a slippery one if you’re not a geek or a communications regulator. But within minutes of the article’s publication, it was being picked up and critically dissected by bloggers all over the world. And much of the dissection was done soberly and intelligently, with commentators painstakingly explaining why Google’s move into content-caching did not automatically signal a shift in the company’s attitude to network neutrality. Lessig was able instantly to rebut the views attributed to him in the article.

Watching the discussion unfold online was like eavesdropping on a civilised and enlightening conversation. Browsing through it I thought: this is what the internet is like at its best – a powerful extension of what Jürgen Habermas once called “the public sphere”.

He continues on his blog:

This was about as far as you can get from the LiveJournal-OMG-my-cat-has-just-been-sick media stereotyping of blogging. It was an illustration of something that has always been true — that the world is full of clever, thoughtful, well-informed people. What has changed is that we now have a medium in which they can talk to one another — and to newspaper reporters, of only the latter are prepared to participate in the conversation….

My complaint about the WSJ’s reaction to the blogosphere’s reaction is that it evinced a refusal to participate. The errors made by its reporters were serious but for the most part understandable; journalism is the rushed first draft of history and we all make mistakes. The tragedy was that the Journal saw the blogosphere’s criticism as a problem, when it fact it was an opportunity.