The best and worst media errors and corrections in 2013
Error of the Year: '60 Minutes' Benghazi report
As is often the case with Error of the Year, the award is given partly because of the mistake itself, and partly because of the mistake's fallout.
In late October “60 Minutes” aired a report that called into question the official version of what happened when the U.S. diplomatic compound was attacked in Benghazi, Libya. At the core of the story was a source, Dylan Davies, who worked as a security contractor for the State Department. Davies had a book coming out that purported to share new facts about what happened that night, and what he did.
Problem one: he lied to the show about what he did and saw, thereby making a core piece of evidence in the "60 Minutes" counter-narrative false and undercutting the entire segment.
Problem two: it only took days for other news outlets, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, to reveal significant flaws with the story, and with Davies. The Times in particular received details from an important FBI interview with Davies that CBS News somehow never managed to get or check prior to airing the story.
How did the most respected TV news magazine get duped? And why didn’t it do the basic work of verifying its source and what he told them?
Troubling revelations just kept coming:
- Davies’ book was being published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster, a sister company of CBS News, but that wasn’t disclosed in the story. When “60 Minutes” aired an apology during a subsequent show, the lack of disclosure wasn’t included in its list of failures. (CBS News did admit this error earlier; just not on the actual show.)
- The program initially adopted a “stand by our story” stance and didn’t engage with critics, other than to dismiss them. It didn’t make key people involved in the reporting available for interviews. And when the program realized it had been wrong all along, correspondent Lara Logan was dispatched to give a mea culpa — but only to a CBS show. To this day, there hasn't been a significant opportunity for a non-CBS media outlet to speak to the principals about what went wrong.
- CBS News ordered an internal review of what happened. That's good, but the review was conducted by someone who reports to Jeff Fager, the head of CBS News and the executive producer of “60 Minutes”. As the top person at the show, Fager was responsible for what aired. Yet he was also the person who would receive the report about what went wrong, and determine what actions to take as a result. A conflict of interest, to be sure.
- In the wake of the error, excerpts of the Davies book were published. The key passage about his interview with the FBI after the attacks, in particular, lacked a basic level of believability that should have been a red flag for both "60 Minutes" and Simon & Schuster.
Today, after all the attention, an internal review, and leave of absences for Logan and the segment's lead producer, we still don’t know why the mistake was made. It may come out later in a book or other account, but what’s clear is CBS News itself has no interest in sharing that detail.
It seems the fifth “w” of reporting — why — doesn't matter to "60 Minutes" when it involves their own work.
Runner-Up: New York Post’s "BAG MEN" Cover
Oh, we were just reflecting what our source told us, the Post said. We didn’t identify them as suspects, the paper argued. Even Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter with an attempt at deflection:
All NYPost pics were those distributed by FBI. And instantly withdrawn when FBI changed directions.
— Rupert Murdoch (@rupertmurdoch) April 20, 2013
The innocent men in that cover photo subsequently sued the paper for defamation.
Typo of the Year
It’s always notable when a paper misspells its own name. It’s even more notable when a paper misspells its own name in an article celebrating recent awards for journalistic excellence:
Apology of the Year
The Sunday People (U.K.):
On 16 September we published an article headed 'I’ve had Moore women than James Bond' which claimed that Sir Roger Moore had recently spoken exclusively to The People and made comments to our journalist about his private life. We now accept that Sir Roger did not give an interview to our reporter and did not make the comments that were reported in the headline. We apologise for any distress and embarrassment our article has caused to Sir Roger Moore and we have agreed to pay him damages and legal costs.
The Sun (U.K.):
In an article on Saturday headlined ‘Flying saucers over British Scientology HQ’, we stated “two flat silver discs” were seen “above the Church of Scientology HQ”. Following a letter from lawyers for the Church, we apologise to any alien lifeforms for linking them to Scientologists.
The Ballard News-Tribune:
In the article, “How does Ballard stack up in residential burglaries?” The Ballard News-Tribune made an egregious error. Reporter Zachariah Bryan wrote, "There's not quite as many sailors picking fights at dive bars (if you excuse the incident at the Ballard Smoke Shop where a visiting tourist got a glass smashed in his face during Syttende Mai).” However, as one astute reader pointed out, this incident did not occur inside the Ballard Smoke Shop. It started up the street -- the originating bar is not confirmed -- and worked its way down, ending outside the Smoke Shop. The reader informed The Ballard News-Tribune, “The bartenders at the Smoke Shop do not tolerate rowdiness and fighting. They do not over serve their customers and they keep a watchful eye out for trouble.” The reporting was irresponsible, based on hearsay and partially the result of a tired brain. We apologize for the error.
An April 23 article wrongly stated that Scarborough-Guildwood MPP Margarett Best vacationed in Mexico this month while on medical leave from her duties. The article contained a photograph from Margarett Best’s Facebook page that the Star reported was taken on April 4, 2013, when in fact the photograph was taken in October 2008. The Star apologizes to Best for publishing this false information. We acknowledge that we fell below our standards of journalism in reporting this matter.
London Evening Standard:
In our diary article “Museum finally signs its deal to be fine and dandy” (August 7, 2013) we referred to the exhibition of the late Sebastian Horsley’s suits at the Museum of London and the Whoresley show, an exhibition of his pictures at the Outsiders Gallery. By unfortunate error we referred to Rachel Garley, the late Sebastian Horsley’s girlfriend, who arranged the exhibitions, as a prostitute. We accept that Ms Garley is not and has never been a prostitute. We offer our sincere apologies to Ms Garley for the damage to her reputation and the distress and embarrassment she has suffered as a result.
Correction of the Year
Tampa Bay Times:
This story has been updated to reflect the following change: A Tampa Bay Times reporter not strong in the ways of the force (or Star Wars lore) quoted the event’s moderator, Croix Provence, as asking: “Are you ready to find love in all the wrong places?” What Provence actually said was: “Are you ready to find love in Alderaan places?” She was referring to Princess Leia Organa’s home world, which appeared briefly in the 1977 film. Regret the error, we do.
It’s a good read, with a great open and close. Plus, the error itself is an amusing misquote. Overall: quality correction work.
An earlier version of the Carlos Danger Name Generator suggested incorrectly that the Carlos Danger Name for Anthony Weiner is Armando Catastrophe. The Carlos Danger Name for Anthony Weiner is Carlos Danger.
A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston saying “anyone with nipples” instead of “anyone with a pulse.”
Switzerland was linked with cuckoo clocks in two articles last week (Swiss launch competition to find new polyglot national anthem, 15 August, page 21; Fear of the unfortunate, 12 August, page 20), prompting one Swiss reader to point out that – while Orson Welles did once say, in the film The Third Man, that “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock” – such timepieces originated in Germany.
The New York Times:
An article last Sunday about the documentary maker Morgan Spurlock, who has a new film out on the boy band One Direction, misstated the subject of his 2012 movie “Mansome.” It is about male grooming, not Charles Manson. The article also misspelled the name of the production company of Simon Cowell, on whose “X Factor” talent competition show One Direction was created. The company is Syco, not Psycho.
The Associated Press:
In an Oct. 10 story about protesters dumping bags of cash in a Senate office building, The Associated Press misidentified in the headlines the people who were protesting and arrested. The protesters were critics of seed giant Monsanto and its role in genetically modified food production. They were not hemp activists.
Yesterday's Lou Reed obituary should have referred to his collaboration with Metallica on the album Lulu, rather than collaborations with Metallica and Lulu.
The New York Times:
An obituary on Sept. 20 about Hiroshi Yamauchi, the longtime president of Nintendo, included a quotation from a 1988 New York Times article that inaccurately described the Nintendo video game Super Mario Bros. 2. The brothers Mario and Luigi, who appear in this and other Nintendo games, are plumbers, not janitors.
Marie Claire magazine:
In our July issue we wrongly described Tina Cutler as a journalist. In fact she is a practitioner of vibrational energy medicine.
The Washington Post:
The New York Times:
An article on Monday about a recall election facing Colorado lawmakers who supported gun-control legislation referred incorrectly to one of the Republican challengers expected to face John Morse, the State Senate president, on the ballot. The candidate, Bernie Herpin, is a former city councilman, not an author of erotic novels. (Jaxine Bubis, a novelist turned politician, has dropped out of the race.)
An article (Ireland gets its first curriculum for teaching children atheism, 27 September, page 35) was amended to clarify that pupils in multi-denominational schools will learn about atheism as part of the wider curriculum covering ethics, beliefs and religion. Atheists will not be teaching children that God does not exist, as originally stated, rather, children will be educated about atheism, including the atheist belief that God does not exist.
The Huffington Post:
An earlier version of this story indicated that the Berlin Wall was built by Nazi Germany. In fact, it was built by the Communists during the Cold War.
The New York Times:
The Media Equation column on Monday, about the animated comedy show “South Park” and its creators, misstated a plot point in the show. While the character Kenny was once killed in every episode, that is no longer the case. The column also misstated the circumstances of his repeated deaths. While Kenny met his fate in a variety of ways over the years, he was not routinely “ritually sacrificed.”
The Forward previously reported that [Israeli Ambassador Michael] Oren reached for the ham, which misrepresented what Leibovich wrote in his book. Leibovich’s account never insinuated that Oren ate the ham. The Forward regrets the error.
The New York Times (City Room blog):
City Room, based on its extremely poor religious training, made the mistake above of wondering aloud whether meat from a pig with an uncloven hoof would still be considered nonkosher. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union, the largest kosher certification organization in the world, quickly set us straight. “Actually this pig is even worse than all other pigs,” he said. “Not only does it not chew its cud, it doesn’t have a split hoof.” Split hoof = kosher. Unsplit = nonkosher. The thing that makes pigs nonkosher is that they don’t chew their cud. We will remember this. Thanks, Rabbi.
Breaking-News Errors — Labeling this a trend is admittedly problematic, in that breaking-news errors are as old as breaking news. Events such as natural disasters or crisis situations strike suddenly, and confusion is a natural byproduct. (Related: I’m editing a free Verification Handbook aimed at helping journalists and humanitarian agencies deal with emergency and crisis situations. Sign up to get a free copy early next year.)
Last year’s error of the year was the breaking-news breakdowns by CNN and Fox News in their coverage of the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) decision. This year, breaking-news mistakes warrant a collective mention because they happened again and again. There were mistakes made during the initial coverage of the Boston bombings, the Navy Yard shootings, the shooting at LAX (which included a Canadian newspaper falling for a hoax tweet claimed the former head of the NSA was dead), the crash landing of a Korean Air flight in San Francisco (see Best Naming Error below)… and on and on.
It’s become such an expected scenario, with similar mistakes being made over and over again, that I decided to write a template article with lessons and advice, “This is my story about the breaking news errors that just happened.”
High-Profile Journalists Dumped for Inaccuracy — AP fired three journalists after they played a role in publishing a report that falsely accused Virginia Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe of lying to federal investigators. (The accusation was published shortly before the election, thereby possibly affecting the outcome.) Reporter Bob Lewis, who wrote the erroneous story, was fired along with editors Norman Gomlak and Dena Potter. I noted at the time how surprising it was to see three staffers dismissed, especially the long-tenured Lewis, who hadn't been party to a big error before. I also listed other recent firings to highlight how inconsistently punishment is applied by news organizations.
Earlier in the year, The Daily Beast parted ways with its Washington correspondent, Howard Kurtz, the former media writer for The Washington Post, after he made the latest in a series of bad mistakes. The final straw was his claim that former NBA player Jason Collins hadn't previously disclosed he'd been engaged to a woman before publicly admitting he's gay. That was incorrect, and Kurtz's post was retracted.
You don’t often see high-profile, or long-tenured, journalists fired for inaccuracy. And you also don’t often see the editor who fired one of them use it as a zinger on Twitter:
Hey @HowardKurtz am I forgetting something or didn't I fire you for serial inaccuracy? Shurely shome mishtake as British hacks like to say..
— Tina Brown (@TheTinaBeast) August 5, 2013
Best Broadcast Correction
On-air corrections are rare. It’s unfortunate, but true. So when a major news organization makes an effort to admit a mistake, and even turn it into a fun and informative segment, I’m happy to give them some love. Good for you, NBC News and Brian Williams:
Best Naming Error
What else could it be except KTVU-TV in Oakland airing a series of fake, offensive Korean names in a report about the crash of an Asiana flight in July (sample: “Ho Lee Fuk”):
The on-air apology:
The New York Times:
An earlier version of a tweet in this column misstated the name of its writer. As her Twitter handle correctly noted, she is Jillian C. York, not Chillian J. Yikes! (That is a pseudonym she created for Halloween).
This review misspelled basically everyone’s name. It’s Hannah Horvath, not Hannah Hovrath; Marnie is played by Allison Williams, not Alison Williams; and Ray is played by Alex Karpovsky, not Zosia Mamet.
Best Numerical Error
The Wall Street Journal:
A Bloody Mary recipe, which accompanied an Off Duty article in some editions on June 8 about the herb lovage, called for 12 ounces of vodka and 36 ounces of tomato juice. The recipe as printed incorrectly reversed the amounts, calling for 36 ounces of vodka and 12 ounces of tomato juice.
Chris Christie was wrongly described as a Republican mayor in a Shorter cuts item (Weighty issue, 11 November, page 3, G2). He is governor of New Jersey, not a mayor. In addition, 24 stone was converted to 240kg. That should have been about 152kg.
Best Delayed Correction
In the editorial about President Abraham Lincoln’s speech delivered Nov. 19, 1863, in Gettysburg, the Patriot & Union failed to recognize its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.
Read more here.
As Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon explained, “British medical journal The Lancet has reconsidered an obituary of Dr. John Snow that it published on June 26, 1858, and apologized for other attacks on the work of the physician, who's been dead for 155 years."
The Editor would also like to add that comments such as “In riding his hobby very hard, he has fallen down through a gully-hole and has never since been able to get out again” and “Has he any facts to show in proof? No!”, published in an Editorial on Dr Snow's theories in 1855, were perhaps somewhat overly negative in tone.
Best Hipster Correction
The New York Times:
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the products sold at By Brooklyn. The store does not sell dandelion and burdock soda, lovage soda syrup, and Early Bird granola “gathered in Brooklyn.” An earlier version also referred incorrectly to the thoroughfare that contains the thrift shop Vice Versa. It is Bedford Avenue, not Bedford Street, or Bedfoprd Avenue, as stated in an earlier correction.
Most Notable Non-Media Correction
The World Health Organization set off a frenzy after it declared Greeks were deliberately infecting themselves with AIDS as a way to get better health benefits. Yes, that was one helluva claim, and it took on a level of significance and credibility because it came directly from an organization like the WHO. In the end, it was an editing error, and the organization published this correction:
The sentence should read: “half of the new HIV cases are self-injecting and out of them few are deliberately inflicting the virus”. The statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the document, for which WHO apologizes.
Worst Attitude Regarding Accuracy
Evgeny Morozov is a scholar and anti-solutionism artisan. What that means is he can be relied upon to write highly critical pieces about technology and the idea that it can save everything. He’s also critical of the people he sees pushing the aforementioned “solutionism.” (Side note: sometimes he locks his phone and "router cable" in a safe as a way to ensure he can focus on reading and thinking. Read the comment thread on this Nicholas Carr post for a fun ride.)
All of this leads up to a piece he wrote for Slate about BuzzFeed that carried the headline “The Virality of Evil.” It was a look at “How BuzzFeed’s translation project will hurt foreign news.” Morozov made several factual errors in the piece, resulting in this correction:
This article originally used different analytics platforms to compare the BBC’s and BuzzFeed’s traffic. The sentence about the BBC has been removed because the comparisons are not exact. The piece also said that “The Viral Web in Real Time” is BuzzFeed’s motto. It was a prominently displayed tag line on the site for some time, but no longer is. The article also said that BuzzFeed is not interested in bringing local foreign news to the English-language blogosphere; BuzzFeed has a foreign editor and correspondents in Turkey, Syria, and Moscow. That sentence has been removed. The article also originally suggested that BuzzFeed is entering local advertising markets in foreign countries. BuzzFeed is not currently in local markets.
But he earns recognition for his attitude thanks to his response when BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith contacted Morozov on Twitter to let him know parts of the piece needed correcting:
The above would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that 1. Smith was correct that the piece made a number of errors, any of which could have been avoided with a bit of research. 2. Anyone writing authoritatively about BuzzFeed should know that they actually make kind of a big deal about not doing slideshows.
So, writers: if you’re told your piece has errors, and your mocking response is actually another error (and evidence that you don't know your subject), you'll find yourself here come year's end.
The title of this award has always been sarcastic. But after this year, I considered retiring it altogether. The hoaxes kept coming, and the press kept pushing them out. Even The New York Times felt the need to write an article about the virality of bullshit, and the media that publish it. Just a few of this year’s hoaxes, debunked:
- Al Jazeera America did not hire Sarah Palin.
- Mike Tyson did not get a sex change.
- A Google employee did not yell at a protestor, "Why don't you go to a city that can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can't afford it? You can leave. I'm sorry, get a better job."
- ABC producer Elan Gale did not have an epic note passing war with "Diane in 7A" on a delayed flight during Thanksgiving.
- Paul Krugman did not declare personal bankruptcy.
- President Obama did not personally finance a Muslim museum.
- As noted above, ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden was not killed in a shooting at LAX. Which leads me to...
- Star Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o did not have a girlfriend who died.
This is the category that matters, more than ever.
The amount of hoaxes and other misinformation that make their way into the world feels like it’s ever-increasing. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it feels like hoaxes spread farther, faster. What that means is the importance of debunking hoaxes is greater than ever before — and hopefully it’s going to be a part of the news cycle more than ever before.
This year’s best debunking effort is, in my view, clear: Deadspin’s work to reveal that Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was a fake. This was an elaborate hoax — and one that Te’o himself seems to have been unaware of. Deadspin spent a lot of time unraveling the hoax, the contradictory media reports, and the man behind it.
Who wants to win this next year?
Best Weather Report
How did a mention of Afghanistan end up in this weather story for the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press?
Best Source Correction
In September, The Huffington Post reported that Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and her husband had purchased the most expensive house in San Francisco. Nuh-uh, said Mayer on Twitter:
HuffPost corrected and responded:
— Huffington Post (@HuffingtonPost) September 9, 2013
There were a lot of problems with a Time article about Britain’s class divide. Fittingly, the massive correction that followed had a lot to do with tony universities Oxford and Cambridge. Here’s an excerpt, but go here to read all 545 words:
This article has been changed. An earlier version stated that Oxford University accepted “only one black Caribbean student” in 2009, when in fact the university accepted one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity when applying to Oxford. The article has also been amended to reflect the context for comments made by British Prime Minister David Cameron on the number of black students at Oxford. It has also been changed to reflect the fact that in 2009 Oxford “held” rather than “targeted” 21% of its outreach events at private schools, and that it draws the majority of its non-private students from public schools with above average levels of attainment, rather than “elite public schools.” An amendment was made to indicate that Office for Fair Access director Les Ebdon has not imposed but intends to negotiate targets with universities. It has been corrected to indicate that every university-educated Prime Minister save Gordon Brown has attended Oxford or Cambridge since 1937, rather than throughout history …
Correction: This post originally, and incorrectly referred to the "World Heath Organization," rather than the World Health Organization. It also misspelled Marissa Mayer's last name as "Meyer" in one place, and incorrectly referred to Virginia Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe as the current governor. (He gets sworn in on Jan. 11, 2014.) KTVU is based in Oakland not San Francisco as originally posted. Thanks to the commenters/Twitter users who spotted these!