When the media makes a mistake, Craig Silverman takes note. He’s the creator of the website Regret the Error, and he joins us again with his annual round-up of the year in corrections, errors, apologies and more. Silverman says 2009 was the year of fact checking, but not by the people you’d think.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. It’s a new year, and as glad tidings fade what’s left are -hangovers, especially for sloppy journalists. Craig Silverman is the creator of RegretTheError.com, and he joins us once again with his annual list of media mistakes. The known blunders have finally reached critical mass because, he says, in 2009, the big thing was:
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Calling B.S., also known as fact checking.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Oftentimes when there are layoffs at a magazine, the fact checkers are usually the first people to go because they look at their staff and they say, well, you sort of check other people’s work, you don't actually produce reporting. But what’s going on is that fact checking is becoming kind of a sport now, and everybody from pundits to people in the public are all engaging in fact checking and trying to call B.S. on each other, and there were just a lot of examples of it this year. A website, PolitiFact – they're a fact checking organization – won a Pulitzer. And then, of course, there’s The Daily Show, which has really taken up a lot of fact checking. We've talked about the disappearance of the professional fact-checker; well, The Daily Show actually has one on staff.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] So they seem to be picking up the slack. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay, let's get down to business. What was the Error of the Year?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: The error is called Wafergate because back in July a Canadian newspaper, The Telegraph-Journal, reported that the prime minister of Canada - when he was taking communion at a church - that he had taken the wafer, which represents the body of Christ, and placed it in his pocket. And the newspaper ran a front page story. They had quotes from a very senior priest in the area saying that this was an outrage, and basically it turned into a national scandal. It didn't have any evidence that he had placed it in his pocket. The accusations were inserted at some point in the editorial process after the reporters had actually filed the story. And, in fact, those quotes from the priest saying this was a scandal were pretty much fabricated or, at the very least, sexed up a little bit. So they had to make a couple of very big, groveling apologies. The editor of the paper lost her job but we still don't actually know who inserted this accusation in the paper. Unfortunately, this sort of lack of disclosure is all too common.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, then let’s go to the Correction of the Year. This one comes from The Washington Post.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: So here’s the correction from The Washington Post: “A November 26th article incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 9-1-1, the emergency phone number.” What's interesting is the Correction of the Year is again an example of an editor causing the mistake. Now, the writer of the article was actually very upset with what happened, because the correction went around Twitter and went around online and a lot of people were ridiculing her, saying that she didn't know anything about hip-hop and, as it turned out, that it actually wasn't her fault. A copy editor had made the change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And weirdly, The Washington Post’s policy is they don't say who made the error. They're quite opaque on this point.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: They do have a policy that states as a collective organization we share the collective blame for our errors. And so, you know, the reporter who is sort of getting mocked for this wrote an article that she tried to have placed in the paper about what it felt like to have been made fun of for an error that wasn't her fault, and the paper rejected that too. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This year’s Apology of the Year is really serious.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: It’s from The Sun, a tabloid in England, and it is a pretty serious apology for some pretty serious accusations. So here’s the Apology of the Year from The Sun: “In a report on May 5th, we claimed that Artur Boruc had brought two girls to the house he shares with partner Sara Mannei and had sex with one of them. We published a picture which we said showed him straightening one of the girls’ hair. We now accept the picture was, in fact, of Boruc and his younger sister Paulina in Poland some years earlier, and that neither did Mr. Boruc invite back nor have sex with either of the girls in our story. We apologize to Mr. Boruc and Ms. Mannei for any embarrassment caused.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When writing the corrections, some newspapers take care to repeat every inaccuracy in their correction, but isn't there an argument for not repeating every ill-informed detail so they aren't fixed in the readers’ minds?
CRAIG SILVERMAN: This is one of the great debates of corrections, and it’s to repeat or not to repeat the error. And there are some that are very, very stringent that we absolutely must restate what was incorrect and then provide the correct information, so that anyone who had read the story can remember, oh right, I read that, okay, here’s the correct information. An example of a publication that does that as a rule is The New York Times. Then you have the other school of thought, which is that well, if we restate the error we're just compounding the damage. In some cases, repeating accusations about somebody having sex with girls, a lot of people would read that and say, you know what, it’s kind of like they're sticking the knife in again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Obviously, we've only gone through a few of them, and that’s all we have time for, but I don't want to take away your opportunity to give us your personal favorite.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: It’s from The Los Angeles Times, and here’s the correction: “An item in the National Briefing in Sunday’s Section A said a bear wandered into a grocery store in Hayward, Wisconsin on Friday and headed for the beer cooler. It was Thursday.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] But the rest of it’s okay.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: That’s it. You know, he was looking for a beer. What’s your problem?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I guess that’s a perfect way to end the year. Thank you so much.
CRAIG SILVERMAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Craig Silverman is the creator of RegretTheError.com.