Category Archives: Journalism

“How Did This Happen?”: The story behind the Times’ comedy of errors (but I’m not laughing)

In today’s New York Times, Clark Hoyt, the public editor, wrote in detail about Alessandra Stanley’s error-filled appraisal of Walter Cronkite and how it happened:

The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes. The Times seems to have particular difficulty in writing about people after their deaths. In addition to the appraisal in the Arts section, a front-page Cronkite obituary had two errors of its own, and the paper has suffered through a recent string of obits with multiple errors. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said late last week that an editor is being added to the obituary department to fact-check and work with the staff to reduce “unacceptably high error rates.”

The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

June 19 was a Friday, a heavy time for the culture department, which was processing copy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

When his father died on July 17, Chip Cronkite said he called CBS and then The Times, at 8:01 p.m. Laurel Graeber, who was running the culture copy desk, said she didn’t get the word for half an hour. Work had just finished on the Saturday Arts section, and most of the editors had gone home. Past deadline, Amy Virshup, a deputy culture editor, decided to put Stanley’s appraisal across the top of the Arts front. Graeber said she was worried about a headline, photos and captions. “I was not focusing on details” within the story, she said, thinking those had been handled. Graeber did make one fix, changing the first name of ABC’s anchor to Charles Gibson from Charlie in the title of his program. But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8.

And, it could have been worse. Nicole Herrington, a late-shift editor reading the appraisal casually, decided to check a fact near the top — Cronkite’s age when he retired. It was wrong. He was 64, not 65. Virshup then headed off the same mistake in the Page 1 obituary.

Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust.

Chip Cronkite seemed philosophical about all the errors. He said his parents had a joke ashtray with the inscription, “Just give me the facts: I’ll mix ’em up when I quote you.”

To The Times, this isn’t a laughing matter. Whitney said: “We cannot tolerate this, and have tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence. I have spoken with those involved, and other senior newsroom editors and I will monitor the implementation of these measures.”

See my previous blog post (“At least they spelled his name right”) for links to Stanley’s Cronkite article and the Times’ correction of it.

UPDATE: In Craig Silverman’s new post on his Regret the Error blog, he uses this as a “teachable moment” and gives some practical tips on how to prevent errors and increase accuracy.

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At least they spelled his name right

Reading the New York Times this morning, I spotted this jaw-dropping correction listing seven different errors in one article about Walter Cronkite:

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.

Here’s the link to the original article about Cronkite (with the corrections).

At least they spelled Cronkite’s name right. In his August 12, 2007 column, Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor, wrote about the paper’s name problem:

The fact is, The New York Times misspells names at a ferocious rate — famous names, obscure names, names of the dead in their obituaries, names of the living in their wedding announcements, household names from Hollywood, names of Cabinet officers, sports figures, the shoe bomber, the film critic for The Daily News in New York and, astonishingly and repeatedly, Sulzberger, the name of the family that owns The New York Times…

So, you ask, what’s the big deal? Doesn’t The Times have more important things to worry about, like getting it right on Iraq and Iran and the presidential campaign?

Yes, a great newspaper has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, “If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?”

Or, as Joe Lelyveld said in 2000, when he was executive editor of The Times, “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”

At a retreat of senior editors of The Times, Lelyveld called on them to “sweat the small stuff.” He bemoaned “the malignancy of misspelled names,” pointing out, among other things, that The Times had misspelled the first name of Madeleine Albright, who was then secretary of state, 49 times, despite running three corrections.

Unfortunately, the cancer appears to be getting worse..

I asked Greg Brock, the senior editor in charge of corrections, why he thinks so many names are misspelled in the paper, especially when The Times has so many layers of editing. In theory, every article is read by at least five people after a reporter finishes it, though stories written or changed for later editions often get far fewer checks. Brock said that when he looks into mistakes he gets several common responses:

¶Reporters say they were operating from memory and didn’t bother to check. That’s what one writer said after misspelling the name of Julianna Margulies, the television actress.

¶Reporters assume that a name is spelled the “normal” way and don’t check. That’s what happened with the obituary of Neal Shine, the former publisher of The Detroit Free Press, whose first name was not Neil, as it appeared in the paper. Shine hired me in 1968, when he was the city editor of The Free Press, and he would get infuriated by errors like this.

¶Reporters checking names on the Internet are carelessly misled by other people’s misspellings.

Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of standards, has another theory. “Their minds are on higher things,” he said. “They’re looking at the bigger story, and they think they can’t bother with details like that.” Besides, he added, they expect misspellings “will be caught on the copy desk.”

I know the Times is having serious financial problems, but they really should hire back some of their fact-checkers and copy editors.

UPDATE 1: According to Gawker, this is not the first time the writer of the Cronkite article (Alessandra Stanley, the Times’  television critic) has made these kinds of  mistakes:

Alessandra Stanley Corrected Hard

How Many Corrections Does It Take To Get Fired At ‘The Times’?

Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s posts about Alessandra Stanley at Regret the Error.

UPDATE 2: Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s July 24th column about Alessandra Stanley for the Columbia Journalism Review.

“Dear Plagiarist”

More plagiarism in the news this week– actions do (sometimes) have consequences.

Regret the Error reported that Hailey Mac Arthur, a college student working as a summer intern at the Colorado Springs Gazette, was fired after it was discovered that four of her stories were plagiarized from the New York Times.  Here’s the July 7th Editor’s Note from the Gazette revealing the plagiarism and student’s name. Her school, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, issued a statement on their website that they are “looking into” the plagiarism allegations, they are “withholding judgment” until they investigate, and they emphasized their “unwavering policy against plagiarism of any kind.”

“It’s simple: We don’t tolerate plagiarism,” said the college’s dean, John Wright. “There’s no way you can be a student in our college and not know that we consider plagiarism a grave transgression.”

…Professors and instructors in the college discuss plagiarism in their classes and let students know that even minor offenses can result in a failing grade and possible expulsion from the program and UF.

“From the first semester of the freshman year, journalism students have the evils of plagiarism pounded into their skulls,” said the chair of the journalism department, William McKeen. “That message is part of every course we teach.”

Master Lecturer Mike Foley, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, tells his students on the first day of class that he would advocate kicking out anyone who “steals the words of others.”…

“This case is a stunning aberration,” Foley said. “Our students know better.”

On the Inside Higher Ed website, G. Thomas Couser, a professor of English at Hofstra University, has written an open letter to one of his students, titled “Dear Plagiarist.” Here’s an excerpt:

When you got your paper back with a grade of F for plagiarism, you reacted in predictable fashion — with indignant denial of any wrongdoing. You claimed “you cited everything” and denied that you had committed intentional plagiarism, or ever would….

I suspect that, because too many professors (many of them adjuncts fearful of student backlash) overlook or are unwilling to pursue plagiarism — the process can be labor intensive, and it is always unpleasant — cheating has become a way of life for many students, and they are genuinely surprised at being held responsible for it. So I don’t doubt that your shock is real.

When I declined to believe your initial denial, you reiterated it less strongly (“OK, I used SparkNotes, but I reworded everything”) and appealed to me for leniency on various grounds: first, that you didn’t know that paraphrase required documentation; second, that you had in fact read the book you were supposed to be analyzing (Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted); and, third, that the low term grade resulting from your F on the paper would cost you your scholarship.

With regard to your first claim, I have to admit that your paraphrase was very thorough, so much so that Turnitin.com, to which you were required to submit your paper for screening, did not lead me to SparkNotes. There were other clues, however: the potted nature of your off-topic observations and, more obviously, your paper’s entire lack of specific page references to your primary source. Also, earlier, less skillful plagiarists had alerted me to the SparkNotes on Girl, Interrupted, so I knew where to look.

Your second claim is also familiar; student plagiarists often claim that they thought documentation is only necessary for quotation. For all I know, this excuse may have worked for them before. But any adequate discussion of plagiarism will correct that misimpression, as I do in course documents you should have read. As a college student, you should know that the key to responsible use of secondary sources is to cite them openly from the get-go and to indicate clearly the boundary between your words, insights, and ideas, and those of your source. But you relied almost entirely on SparkNotes for your observations…

Your use of the online “study guide” SparkNotes is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such guides very rarely enable students to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a student has actually read (as a student I occasionally used them that way myself), but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of true college writing….

The reason that plagiarism like yours makes professors so sad – and, yes, sometimes mad — is that it entirely defeats our attempts to educate you. We work hard to put you in a position to reach understandings that you would not otherwise be able to attain… Cannibalizing a source like SparkNotes is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do… The problem is not so much rule breaking as point missing….

If you take the text I’ve marked above in bold type and make a few simple substitutions (“Wikipedia” for “SparkNotes,” “writer” for “student,” etc.), you get one of the important lessons that Chris Anderson still hasn’t learned from the plagiarism kerfuffle over his new book, Free:

Your use of Wikipedia is a problem not only because it was unacknowledged but also because it entirely short-circuited your thinking process. Such websites very rarely enable writers to carry out independent analysis of primary sources; rather, they tend to inhibit or completely block it because they trade in canned, bland summaries and commentary. When they are sound (which isn’t always the case) they may be helpful for quick review of material a  writer has actually read, but such general-purpose commentary is no substitute for — or stimulus to — the kind of analysis and argument that are characteristic of writing books. Cannibalizing a source like Wikipedia is not “extra research” for which you should be lauded (as you claim); on the contrary, it’s a substitute for (and the very antithesis of) the intellectual work that you were asked to do.

The Washington Post discovers that fewer copy editors = more errors

Craig Silverman at Regret the Error has an excellent post about an important but underreported problem– the increasing number of errors in newspapers caused by the decreasing number of copy editors:

Just over two years ago, the public editor of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a column alerting readers to the fact that the paper had experienced a spike in the number of corrections. He was clear about the cause of the increased errors:

When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt back in June, it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication.

With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.

Yesterday, the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote basically the same column:

…Growing numbers of readers are contacting the ombudsman to complain about typos and small errors.

“As a virtually lifelong subscriber, I am disheartened by the increasingly poor quality of the editing of The Post,” wrote Richard Murphy of Alexandria. If typos can’t be caught by a spell-checker, “then The Post should restore a couple of copy editor positions. You have cut that staff too much.”

The Post’s copy editors are among the best I’ve worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they’ve been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won’t provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they’re the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit…

“By definition, you’ll see more errors when there’s reduced staffing,” said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, “there are some shifts where I’m looking at seven or eight people total.”…

These papers are by no means the only ones experiencing a spike in errors due to the loss of bodies on the copy desk. Adding to the problem is the fact that the move online means papers are churning out more content than ever before. Yet copy editors — and magazine fact checkers — are being shown the door.

Carl Sessions Stepp examined how some newsrooms are coping with this challenge is his recent article, “The Quality-Control Quandary,” It’s a must-read. I fear, though, that few organizations are rethinking their quality control process and means of verification. They’re just trying to do more with less. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I looked at this issue in a recent essay I wrote for Harvard’s Neimen Reports….

Here are the related links:

July 5, 2009 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors”

April/May 2009 article in the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepps, “The Quality-Control Quandary”

Craig Silverman’s essay in the Nieman Reports (Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard), “Reliable News: Errors Aren’t Part of the Equation”

Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and his column in the Columbia Journalism Review

“Be skeptical and verify everything”: Fact-checking tips from PolitiFact

Through Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error blog, I discovered the YouTube Reporters’ Center, a new resource for “citizen reporters,” bloggers, or anyone interested in journalism to “help you learn more about how to report the news. It features some of the nation’s top journalists and news organizations sharing instructional videos with tips and advice for better reporting.”

The YouTube Reporters’ Center contains dozens of videos, including Nicholas Kristof on covering a global crisis, Bob Woodward on investigative journalism, Arianna Huffington on citizen journalism, Dean Wright on online journalism ethics, Katie Couric on how to conduct an interview, and Scott Simon on how to tell a story.

One video that may be of particular interest to readers of this blog is “PolitiFact’s Guide to Fact-Checking”:

The main points stressed in the video are relevant to all kinds of research: be skeptical, verify everything, use original sources, “love– and fear– the Internet,” and be very careful when using Wikipedia.

PolitiFact.com is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political fact-checking website run by the St. Petersburg Times, home to the “Truth-O-Meter” and “Obameter”:

Every day, reporters and researchers from the Times examine statements by members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington. We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter – True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire….

We created the Obameter to help you assess the Obama presidency. Our reporters have compiled a database of more than 500 individual promises that Barack Obama made during the campaign. We research and rate their status as No Action, Stalled or In the Works and then ultimately determine whether it earns a Promise Kept, Compromise or Promise Broken.

Another political fact-checking website of note is FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.