Since 2004, I’ve marked the end of each year by collecting the best of the worst in media errors and corrections. Now that Regret the Error has moved to Poynter Online, it seems fitting to kick things off in my new home with this detailed look at the major incidents and uh-ohs of the year that was. This is what it looks like when journalism and journalists go wrong. Off we go…
Typo of the Year: Obama/Osama
Osama Bin Laden’s death at the hands of the U.S. military led to an onslaught of Obama/Osama typos, chyrons and verbal slips. This was nothing new: I pegged this name confusion as a Trend of Note back in 2007. But 2011 saw the full potential of this type of error when Osama’s death was announced live on TV by President Obama. The result was an explosion of confusion in print, online, and on the air. (Want to know why it’s so easy to make this mistake? I explained here.) Below is a sampling of what we saw and heard:
South China Morning Post:
The paper followed its error with a mistaken correction:
In a headline on page A2 yesterday, the US president’s first name was erroneously given instead of that of Osama bin Laden. We apologise for the error.
Why is it incorrect? Because the paper made an Obama/Osama error — and that involves the U.S. president’s last name.
An article meant to name Osama bin Laden, but instead said: “Asked on Wednesday whether the team that killed Obama had come under fire, [Press Secretary Jay] Carney said the White House had gone to the limit in providing details and that any more would risk future operations” (Photos reveal gruesome aftermath of Bin Laden raid, 5 May, page 9 turn from page 1, early editions).
The Sacramento Bee:
A Washington Post story on Page A12 on May 2 and a McClatchy Newspapers Washington Bureau story on Page A13 on May 6 mistakenly used the name Obama instead of Osama in references to Osama bin Laden.
From the News-Herald of Willoughby, Ohio:
Remember to turn back my wha?
A pull-quote accompanying the winter review of Haya Molnar’s book Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood m [sic] Communist Romania should have read “I wish the world would stop hating Jews because I’m still the same person I was before I knew I was Jewish.” In an unfortunate typo, the pull-quote that ran replaced the word “hating” with “having.”
The Canberra Times:
The article “Game on in Dickson’s twilight zone” (June 23, p4) incorrectly reported the 2011 Canberra Roleplaying and Games Festival Triptych theme as “immorality.”
The theme was “immortality”.
Best New Artist Award: Andy Carvin
This is new to my annual round up. But everywhere you looked this year, people in journalism circles were talking about NPR’s Andy Carvin. (It got to the point where you often heard the joke at conferences that it wasn’t a real panel until someone name checked him. His name was also included on a journalism conference buzzword bingo card.)
Why all the fuss? Carvin used his Twitter feed to present a real time newswire about the events of the Arab Spring, while also working with his followers and other sources, to crowdsource verification. See this example of how he and his Twitter followers debunked a claim that Israeli munitions were being used in Libya.
I interviewed Carvin earlier this year about what it feels like to practice this kind of real time, crowdsourced verification.
“All of this is more art than science,” he said.
True, but his ability to advance the conversation and pioneer methods of confirming online rumors and material shared via social media demonstrated the potential for new forms of verification, as well as the right way to frame and qualify information you share on social media.
Error of the Year: False Reports of Rep. Giffords’ Death
On January 8, news began to spread of a shooting in Arizona. Soon it became clear that a gunman had fired multiple shots into a crowd attending a public event with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Aside from that, there was a lot of confusion. Things became even worse after the main NPR Twitter account tweeted:
News spread rapidly on Twitter as well as on digital news sites as major news outlets (such as Reuters and CNN) also reported the same information about Rep. Giffords. Of course, it wasn’t true. I recounted how the news spread in this detailed post.
It is perhaps inevitable that 2011’s Best New Artist played a role in this error. Carvin is the person who sent the NPR tweet. In truth, that’s kind of fitting at this early moment in the evolution of real time reporting and verification. Remember the above quote from Carvin: “This is more art than science.”
Mistakes are inevitable. There is still much for us to learn.
This wasn’t a matter of Carvin simply tweeting a rumor. NPR affiliates received the death report from two sources and began sharing it on air and on its website. As Carvin later explained:
NPR began to report on air and online that she had died, based on two different sources – from
my understanding, someone in the sheriff’s office and someone in a congressional office. NPR also sent out a breaking news email reporting her death. Once I saw the story on our website and our breaking news email, I decided to manually send out this tweet …
Though this is a tale of how new platforms like Twitter can spread misinformation, it’s also a bit of an old-school story. NPR did the right thing by seeking out sources on the ground. But those sources turned out to be wrong.
Local media in Arizona were better informed than the larger news organizations. None reported Giffords as dead. They had better sources; their larger local presence and established connections probably made the difference. A good point to keep in mind. As Mark Little of Storyful likes to say, “There is always someone closer to the story.”
Runners Up: False Reports in the Irish Press
The Rep. Giffords error stood out for its national implications, as well as the harm to her friends and family who had to listen to reports that she had died, only to find out they were wrong. However, this year’s runners up are in some ways more damaging.
In the case of the Irish Daily Mail, it falsely reported that a missing university student had been found dead in the River Lee. In fact, his body was not recovered until two days later. (And not in the river.) The small community of Cork had been out in full force to find him. That meant the false report in a major Sunday paper misinformed the community, and undermined the search effort. As a result, the university banned the paper from campus.
The other runner up is Irish broadcaster RTE, which aired an investigative report that accused a Catholic priest of rape, and of having fathered a child from that assault. The story, titled “A Mission to Prey,” ran on the Prime Time Investigates program. It was completely false. The priest in question, Fr. Kevin Reynolds, had to step down from his position with the church and face intense public scrutiny and anger until the truth finally came out. The station eventually aired an apology and posted it online. It also settled a defamation suit, and launched an internal investigation. Fr. Reynolds received a standing ovation from parishioners when he returned to his church.
Other Errors of Note:
- A Minnesota TV reporter falsely accused a New York meat market of selling dog meat.
- An Orthodox Jewish paper photoshopped Hilary Clinton out of the famous Situation Room photo.
- British papers published the wrong Amanda Knox verdict.
Correction of the Year
A front-page story in some editions Monday incorrectly referred to Osama bin Laden as Obama. In the same story, a photograph cutline wrongly said two aircraft hit the same tower of the World Trade Center. The planes hit different towers.
This wins for the combination of the Osama/Obama slip and a very embarrassing related mistake about 9/11, that almost every American would recognize as wrong. All of this in the year that marks the tenth anniversary of those attacks — and in the same story, to boot. A front page story.
An extract of an online opinion piece appeared in the newspaper, headlined Will and Kate’s mask slips (June 9, page 31). It argued that while, pre-wedding, it was announced that the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would not be employing household staff, this image of modernity had now been “compromised by the news that they are advertising for a housekeeper, butler, valet and dresser to serve them in their new home of Kensington Palace”. The couple’s press secretary, Miguel Head, asks us to make clear that: “At most, they may employ one (a cleaner-cum-housekeeper), who may be part-time. We never ‘announced’ that the couple would ‘not be employing any [domestic staff]‘ after their wedding. What we have always said is that the couple have no plans to employ domestic staff at their home in Anglesey, but in London they have use of domestic staff at Clarence House, the home that they have hitherto shared with the Prince of Wales. The additional one part-time, or one full-time, cleaner has come about because the couple are taking their own home in London away from Clarence House.”
Elsewhere the piece referred to “damaging stories of royal profligacy past: Charles with his staff of 150, and an aide to squeeze his toothpaste for him”. Of this, Miguel Head writes: “The Prince of Wales does not employ and has never employed an aide to squeeze his toothpaste for him. This is a myth without any basis in factual accuracy.”
The quote, “The Prince of Wales does not employ and has never employed an aide to squeeze his toothpaste for him,” is almost enough on its own to win the prize. But the fact that this allegation was inserted without any kind of verification makes it all the more notable. Then there’s the length, and the laborious explanations — and quoted in full! — from the spokesman. All in all, a lot of detail and dispute and about what one could accurately call a housekeeping matter…
In truth, these are all lovely, each in its own way.
New York Times:
An article on Jan. 16 about drilling for oil off the coast of Angola erroneously reported a story about cows falling from planes, as an example of risks in any engineering endeavor. No cows, smuggled or otherwise, ever fell from a plane into a Japanese fishing rig. The story is an urban legend, and versions of it have been reported in Scotland, Germany, Russia and other locations.
We are grateful to Alert (and scholarly) Reader who noted that we’d said something about Chaucer being written in Old English. Oh, dear. Dr. Clark, who taught us better so many years ago at Centenary College, would be disappointed in us. The textbooks say that Chaucer is really Middle English-not the Old English of, say, Beowulf. We apologize to A. Reader and hasten to correct our error. What a pleasure to have close readers. It can be an education in itself. And keep us straight, which is no easy task.
Wall Street Journal:
“Empire Strikes Backstraat” isn’t the name of an actual street in Almere, the Netherlands. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the town had a street with that name.
Eastern Courier (Australia):
Footnote: Last week’s column revealed that I was the third born of the four Abraham children, which was news to my brothers and sister. For the record, I was the second born.
New York Times:
A report in the Nocturnalist column on Saturday misidentified the material used to create a puppet of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that made an appearance at an exhibition of Jim Henson’s work at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. Muppets, in general, are made of fleece, foam, fake fur and fabric. A spokeswoman for The Jim Henson Company refused to be more specific about the materials used to make Muppet Mayor Bloomberg (Bluppet to his friends), saying, “We consider the ‘magic’ that goes into how we make our puppets as trade secrets and beyond the info I gave, we really can’t be more specific.” What is known is that Bluppet is not made of felt.
The Gay & Lesbian Review:
An editorial error crept into a passage in Jeff Mann’s article on bear culture (Sept.-Oct. 2010). The offending sentence reads: “These proto-bears did not relate to the wellgroomed [sic] urban gay lifestyle; nor did they find in conventional masculinity many qualities worth preserving.” It should end with: “they found in conventional masculinity many qualities worth preserving.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Subkrewe’s name corrected: The caption on a photo of the Krewe du Vieux parade in Sunday’s Metro section incorrectly referred to a parading subkrewe as “Tokin” rather than by its initials: T.O.K.I.N., for the Totally Orgasmic Krewe of Intergalactic Ne’er-do-wells.
The Advocate (Baton Rouge):
Quotations in a story about the Istrouma High School-Broadmoor High School football game that appeared in The Advocate on Saturday, Oct. 29, were wrongly attributed to Broadmoor coach Rusty Price. The reporter who wrote the story thought he was interviewing coach Price after the game. Because the interview subject was not Price, the reporter is unsure whom he spoke with.
The Advocate regrets the error.
Daily Mail (U.K.):
On 18th May 2009 we published an article entitled ’15 years after deserting her husband evicts his ex-wife” about Lionel Etherington. Mr Etherington has asked us to say that he only left after he believed his marriage had irretrievably broken down and, contrary to what his wife alleged, he did not have any ‘secret second family,’ he did not father a child while still married to Mrs Etherington, and provided what financial support he could. He brought eviction proceedings on legal advice in order to enforce a court order for sale of the matrimonial home. Mrs Etherington is now back in the property and Mr Etherington is happy that matters have now been resolved.
Clarification of the Year
This not a traditional kind of correction/clarification. Maybe it’s really better described as an editor’s note. But the below text was published and labeled a “clarification” by India’s Early Times. It features media-on-media nastiness, as well as the wonderful use of “urchin” as an insult. For these reasons and more, it is the Clarification of the Year, or perhaps of all time:
This is to inform our esteemed readers that certain unscrupulous elements, out of sheer frustration and jealously, have created a fake e-mail ID firstname.lastname@example.org This e-mail ID is being used to send fake mails containing news reports published in Early Times. The sender seemingly copies news reports from the website of Early Times, adds certain derogatory remarks about two other local dailies and then sends it to media organisations, reputed personalities including academicians, journalists, politicians and Editors of almost all dailies.
It is clarified that the urchin doing this has no association with Early Times and apparent aim of this insane behavior is to create wedge and animosity between Early Times and two other prominent media outlets of Jammu region. An FIR is being lodged with crime branch of Jammu and Kashmir Police against this anonymous mail sender soon.
Apology of the Year
This goes to a series of apologies published by British papers regarding one Mr. Christopher Jefferies. For a case study in how media can spin out of control and ruin a man’s reputation, have a look at the apologies, and the wholly inaccurate accusations they attempt to mitigate.
One related item to consider: these apologies go out of their way to repeat the egregious untruths about Jefferies. This is good because readers can see for themselves the misery visited upon the man. But it’s fair to question whether this practice compounds the damage, since the incorrect allegations make up the bulk of the apologies. Are there some cases when it’s better not to repeat the error?
Below is also a sample front page to illustrate the initial reports.
Daily Mail (U.K.):
Eight newspapers apologised to Mr Christopher Jefferies in the High Court yesterday. Reports of the investigation into the death of Joanna Yeates had wrongly suggested that Mr Jefferies, who was arrested but released without charge, was suspected of killing Ms Yeates, may have had links to a convicted paedophile and an unresolved murder. It was also wrongly alleged that the former school master had acted inappropriately to pupils. The newspapers, including the Daily Mail, agreed to pay Mr Jefferies substantial damages and legal costs. Later the Daily Mirror was fined £50,000 and the Sun ,£18,000 for contempt of court in relation to their reports.
Daily Express (U.K.):
In court yesterday the Daily Express apologised to Christopher Jefferies for articles published in the Daily Express on December 31 2010 in which we reported on his arrest on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates.
The articles suggested that there were strong grounds to believe that Mr Jefferies had killed Ms Yeates and that he had acted in an inappropriate, over-sexualised manner with his pupils when he was a teacher.
The articles also suggested that he had probably lied to police to obstruct their investigations. It was further suggested that there were grounds to investigate whether he was responsible for an unsolved murder dating back to 1974.
We accepted that all these allegations were untrue and apologised to Mr Jefferies.
Some of these might fall into the category of, “We don’t really think we made a mistake, but we’ll correct it anyway.”
On July 12, 2011, in an article titled “Detective to Sue News of the World Publisher,” we reported that Jonathan Rees murdered his former business partner, Daniel Morgan.
This statement is not true, and was published by us notwithstanding that it is wholly incorrect. We did not contact Mr Rees before the article was published to check the allegation. The charges against Mr Rees were in fact abandoned on March 11, 2011, following a lengthy abuse of process argument. We therefore unequivocally retract and withdraw our incorrect allegation. We sincerely apologise to Mr Rees for our error.
ON August 3 this year the Daily Mirror published an article regarding the death of Miss Catherine Zaks, aged 21, in Krakow, Poland.
The article contained claims that Miss Zaks, from Robertsbridge, East Sussex, abused drugs and had engaged in casual sex following the break-up of a long-term relationship.
Miss Zaks’ parents have pointed out that these claims are entirely false and that their daughter was much loved, and of good character.
We are happy to set the record straight and apologise for any distress caused.
In articles we wrote and published in the Toronto Sun and its website on Dec. 18, 2010 and Jan. 2, 2011, entitled “TTC Union Needs to be Curbed” and “Rob Ford’s big fight: Levy,” we stated that Bob Kinnear, the President of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113, is a union mob boss.
We acknowledge this statement is untrue and we retract it without reservation. We regret this error and apologize to Mr. Kinnear. The Sun did not intend to imply that Mr. Kinnear is in any way, shape or form associated with organized crime.
An item published in The Australian on November 15 (Strewth, “Losing the threads”, page 13) referred to a report in The Zimbabwe Guardian that Jacqueline Zwambila, the Zimbabwean ambassador to Australia, stripped to her underwear in front of three male embassy officials. Ms. Zwambila denies the allegations, and a governmental investigation in Zimbabwe has cleared her of any misconduct charges. The Australian apologises to Ms Zwambila.
The Observer (U.K.):
“Secret tapes, Coulson’s exit and the riddle of the story that won’t go away” (In Focus, 23 January) reported claims from sources that, owing to a “growing drink problem,” former News of the World journalist Ray Chapman “started secretly taping conversations with his colleagues and editors” and that these tapes might assist in confirming allegations of phone hacking at the newspaper. Mr. Chapman’s widow has asked us to make clear that Mr. Chapman was teetotal for the last 15 years of his life and that she denies the existence of any such tapes. We apologise to Mrs. Chapman for any distress caused.
Daily Mail (U.K.):
Statements contained in an article published on 7 March, headed “Babies who are born at 23 weeks should be left to die, says NHS chief,” were wrongly attributed to Dr Daphne Austin, who is a medical consultant specialist employed by the NHS.
They were made in a programme in which Dr Austin participated and were published by us in good faith. In particular, Dr Austin did not state that babies should be “left to die” and did not express the opinion that the financial aspects of neonatal care were the issue. We apologise to Dr Austin for the errors.
The Independent (U.K.):
Two articles published on the 7th and 9th April 2010 concerned the discovery at Liverpool John Lennon Airport that Willi Jarant, aged 91, had died prior to check-in for a flight to Germany and the subsequent arrest of his widow, Gitta Jarant and step-daughter, Anke Anusic. The first article was headed “Women attempt to get on plane with a corpse,” the second was headed “Airport wheelchair man died 12 hours earlier.” We are told that Mr Jarant’s home carer is satisfied that he was alive at the time he boarded a taxi to the airport. It has been pointed out that a Home Office Pathologist, disagreeing with the doctor who pronounced him dead at the airport, concluded that this was consistent with Mr Jarant’s probable time of death and that Mrs Jarant and Mrs Anusic were informed in September 2010 that no charges would be brought. We therefore accept that any suggestion that Mrs Jarant and Mrs Anusic may have deliberately attempted to smuggle their dead relative onto a flight was untrue and apologise for the distress caused to them by the articles.
The Sun (U.K.):
An article on 16 August reported that Manchester United footballer Tom Cleverley had begged a girl for sex after meeting her at a night club, even though he was dating a Page 3 model. In fact, entirely unknown to the girl it now transpires that the man involved, who looked like Tom Cleverley, was impersonating him. We apologise to Mr Cleverley for any embarrassment caused.
Best Photo Error
This goes along with the Typo/Chyron/Slip of the Year. At the same time people were mixing up Osama and Obama, some papers were publishing a doctored image that claimed to show a dead Osama Bin Laden. It was a Photoshop job, and a fairly bad one at that. A couple of the offending uses of the image, via Tabloid Watch:
Dude, that’s not a maple leaf:
South China Morning Post:
That’s George Foreman, not Joe Frazier.
Daily Express (U.K.):
Our article of May 7 2011 “8st kick-boxing WPC scares off thugs” included a photograph said to be that of Richard Chadwick who was convicted of an attack on six people in Leeds, including bursting into one home and threatening to kill the occupant’s baby. The photograph was actually of Mark O’Brien who has no connection to this offence whatsoever.
Best Video Error
Yet another entry related to Ireland. Congrats to that country for a strong (weak?) showing! This incident involves a documentary TV series that mistook images from a video game for footage of the IRA in action. Here’s the official statement from ITV, the broadcaster:
The events featured in Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA were genuine but it would appear that during the editing process the correct clip of the 1988 incident was not selected and other footage was mistakenly included in the film by producers.
This was an unfortunate case of human error for which we apologise.
Watch the footage here.
Plagiarist of the Year: A Tie
There were two awful examples to highlight this year. (My annual list of incidents of plagiarism will be online later this week.) The first example comes from New Zealand, where TVNZ reproduced an ABC News report word for word, shot for shot using local people and products. At first the broadcaster defended the program, pointing to a partnership with ABC. They finally apologized on air. It really has to be seen to be believed, so go here to check it out.
The other example worth noting came to light thanks to Erika Fry at Columbia Journalism Review. Basically, she exposed that Reader Magazine in California is a publication filled with plagiarized words. (This reminds me of a Texas weekly, The Bulletin, that fit the same description, and went out of business after being exposed.) Here’s how Fry outlined Reader’s many, many offenses:
Reader, the oddly-titled, quarterly coupon magazine of Southern California, is a completely different beast. As evidenced by its tendency to raid journalism’s grave circa 2006, Reader is not on this frantic publishing hamster wheel. Its plagiarism is not isolated to a few sentences or a choice turn of phrase. It’s not the work of a rogue reporter trying to get ahead, or an overwhelmed reporter trying to keep up. It is the whole scale ripping off of others’ work.
Biggest Attribution Dustup
Of course it has to be l’affaire Romenesko/Poynter. The background and reaction has been well documented, and we know the end result: Jim Romenesko resigned from Poynter and kicked off his new blog. He also wrote up events in his own words.
This is a delicate one, for obvious reasons. (I now work with Poynter, but wasn’t here when the issue arose back in November; so I have no internal insights to offer.) I’ll just say personally it was sad to watch a long relationship end on a sour note. My sense is that’s a sentiment shared by my new colleagues at Poynter, and by Romenesko, who I was looking forward to interacting with in my new role here. In the end, this was by far the most controversial attribution-related incident of the year, eclipsing the Huffington Post writer who was suspended due to “overaggregation.”
“Without looking it up, I can tell you the night the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series — October 27, 1992 — because that was also the night I lost my virginity.”
Actually, the date was October 24.
In a May 18 “Crime” column, Christopher Beam incorrectly stated that Timothy McVeigh’s perp walk lasted three hours. It occurred three hours before his official arrest.
Award for Transparency and Politeness
This goes to L. Henry Edmunds, Jr., editor of the Annals of Thoracic Surgery. When contacted by the editors of Retraction Watch, for additional details about why the journal retracted a 2004 study, and why the notice of retraction was so vague, Edmunds replied, “It’s none of your damn business.”
Here’s another gem from Edmunds in the same exchange, wherein he explains why he doesn’t need to offer additional information:
If you get divorced from your wife, the public doesn’t need to know the details.
Best Delayed Correction/Retraction
In 2005 Salon and Rolling Stone jointly published a report by Robert Kennedy Jr. that linked autism and vaccines. Not long after being published, Salon started adding corrections to the piece, ending up with five in total. But the piece was never retracted, even after the claims it made were debunked. Finally, this year, Salon retracted the piece. The retraction:
In 2005, Salon published online an exclusive story by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that offered an explosive premise: that the mercury-based thimerosal compound present in vaccines until 2001 was dangerous, and that he was “convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real.”
The piece was co-published with Rolling Stone magazine — they fact-checked it and published it in print; we posted it online. In the days after running “Deadly Immunity,” we amended the story with five corrections (which can still be found logged here) that went far in undermining Kennedy’s exposé. At the time, we felt that correcting the piece — and keeping it on the site, in the spirit of transparency — was the best way to operate. But subsequent critics, including most recently Seth Mnookin in his book “The Panic Virus,” further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value. We’ve grown to believe the best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.
“I regret we didn’t move on this more quickly, as evidence continued to emerge debunking the vaccines and autism link,” says former Salon editor in chief Joan Walsh, now editor at large. “But continued revelations of the flaws and even fraud tainting the science behind the connection make taking down the story the right thing to do.” The story’s original URL now links to our autism topics page, which we believe now offers a strong record of clear thinking and skeptical coverage we’re proud of — including the critical pursuit of others who continue to propagate the debunked, and dangerous, autism-vaccine link.
The Serbian state broadcaster, RTS, apologized this year for turning into a mouthpiece for the Milosevic regime back in the 1990s. From the apology:
During the unfortunate events of the 1990s, Radio-Television Belgrade and Radio-Television Serbia in many instances in their reports offended the feelings, the moral integrity and the honour of citizens of Serbia, humanistically oriented intellectuals, members of the political opposition, critical journalists, particular minorities in Serbia, minority religious communities in Serbia, and also particular neighbouring peoples and states.
Best Headline Error
Yes, it’s very similar to the Runner Up for Typo of the Year. Feel free to call me juvenile, but seeing this word in a headline on the BBC’s website is rather jarring:
That should be clock…
Green Bay Press-Gazette:
That’s not how you spell Chicago…
That’s not how you spell mortgage…
The Greenville News:
Best Failure of Disclosure
In July, Seattle Weekly published a long and detailed cover story that raised many questions about the veracity of Heart Full of Lies, a book by bestselling true crime writer Ann Rule.
Rule’s book told the story of the shooting death of Oregon pilot Chris Northon, and it gave harsh treatment to his widow, Liysa Northon. After all, she was convicted of murdering her husband, though Liysa said she shot him in self defense after years of abuse.
The Seattle Weekly story attempted to point out the flaws in the book and in Rule’s approach. The Weekly story suffered from a crippling and outrageous failure of disclosure: the author of the article, Rick Swart, was engaged to Northon, after a romance developed while she was behind bars. A fact he never mentioned to his editor. (Swart wrote the piece as a freelancer.)
When the paper found out about the relationship it published a lengthy editor’s note, which said simply (and correctly): “If you’re writing about your fiancee, or anyone with whom you have a relationship, you tell the reader.”
The paper also followed up with corrections and more detail after it rechecked all of Swart’s reporting.
The ‘This One’s for The Children’ Award
A story in Saturday’s Real Deal section suggested that a fun thing to do for Halloween is to write “poison” on a plastic jar or bottle and fill it with candy for the kids to eat. A picture that accompanied the story showed a skull and crossbones image similar to the symbol used to indicate something is poisonous. The Citizen understands the need to train children not to touch and never to eat or drink from bottles or jars with that symbol on it, and it was a lapse in judgment for us to have suggested otherwise. For expert poison advice 24 hours a day, anywhere in Ontario, call 1-800-268-9017, or visit the Ontario Poison Centre website.
The Citizen wishes everyone a safe and enjoyable Halloween.
Award for Mistaking Satire For Reality
Ever since The Onion rose to prominence, we have seen lots of media outlets mistake its work for real reporting. Here’s a remarkable example from 2011, wherein the New York Times mistook this Onion graphic for a real magazine cover:
The resulting Times correction:
A series of pictures last Sunday of covers of the magazine Tiger Beat, with an article about how the original teen-girl tabloid has remained virtually unchanged since its inception in 1965, erroneously included a parody cover, produced by the satiric newspaper The Onion, that featured a picture of President Obama.
Los Angeles Times:
Political novel: Tim Rutten’s Feb. 2 Op-Ed column about Simon & Schuster’s promotion of the political novel “O” cited two passages it said were from the book, saying they demonstrated the author’s partisanship. Neither passage actually appeared in the book. They were both taken from a parody that appeared on the website of the British newspaper the Guardian.
Townsville Bulletin (Australia):
The Skeney Says column in Saturday’s Townsville Bulletin described her state after receiving surgery at a dental practice on Kings Rd.
The line “my cotton-wool-stuffed face squished against the window, eyes rolled back at them and slack jaw drooling blood down my chin” was an exaggeration for the purpose of humour and was not intended to reflect on the services of the surgery.
On the contrary, Skene was treated exceptionally well by the practice through the whole process, and is sorry for any misunderstanding her piece may have caused.
Best Sense of Humor in Response to An Error
Here’s the opening line of an article published by AAA World magazine this year:
On June 16, 1964, President Abraham Lincoln told a crowd in Philadelphia, ‘War, at the best, is terrible, and this war of ours in its magnitude and duration, is one of the most terrible.’
Yes, quite the date mixup. Very embarrassing for the magazine. But what AAA World did next was even more notable: it Photoshopped together an image of Lincoln hanging with the Fab Four, whose American Invasion was launched that same fateful (incorrect) year. Then it shared that amusing image while acknowledging its error:
Many of you noticed a slight error in our July/August feature, Ghost Fields, where we suggested that President Lincoln delivered a speech in Philadelphia on June 16, 1964. The actual date of the president’s speech was June 16, 1864. Of course, everybody knows that Abe was touring with the Beatles in 1964 (photographic evidence below). Needless to say, we’re truly embarrassed. We apologize.
Best Naming Error
Senator Megacycle! Via a Kansas City NBC station:
In a story Jan. 18 about changes at the Playboy television channel, The Associated Press reported erroneously about an upcoming show titled “Sex Dream Makeover.” The show’s title is “Sextreme Makeover.”
Los Angeles Times:
Rural reality TV: In the Dec. 1 Calendar section, an article about reality TV series focusing on rural areas referred to the shows “American Hoggers” and “Lady Hoggers” as “American Joggers” and “Lady Joggers.”
CMU professor Kiron Skinner, recently named to GOP presidential candidate and former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s national security team, says she was misquoted in a story Monday about her appointment. She said her quote was: “I’ve been a supporter of Speaker Gingrich for a long time because I’ve seen him in numerous professional circumstances…” The published quote was “… numerous unprofessional circumstances …”
New York Post:
The Post incorrectly attributed a quote to Toni Braxton in an article published on March 25. Braxton did not say: “I have a big-ass house, three cars and I fly first class all around the world. Some say I have the perfect life.”
In a Nov. 3 story about a Texas judge who was secretly videoed beating his teenage daughter, The Associated Press misquoted the judge’s ex-wife. She blamed the violence on his addiction not his addition.
Best Fabricated Headlines
During the NFL season-opener game between the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons, the Fox announcers in the booth began talking about the harsh treatment Bears quarterback Jay Cutler received from the Chicago press after last year’s playoffs. (An injury forced Cutler to the sidelines during the NFC championship game, which the Bears lost.)
The broadcast flashed these three Chicago media headlines on screen:
Cutler Leaves With Injury
Cutler Lacks Courage
Cutler’s No Leader
Fox’s Daryl Johnston said on air, “These are the actual headlines from the local papers in Chicago.”
The Chicago Tribune tried to track down the source of the headlines and reported that, “we could not find any such headlines in any newspaper in the United States.”
Fox later apologized.
This wasn’t the most clever or well-executed hoax. In fact, it was so poorly done that it should have failed. However, it bears highlighting because it demonstrates that the press will jump on a story if it seems too good to be true.
In August, a company calling itself ApTiquant issued a press release claiming IQ tests showed that people who use Internet Explorer as their web browser have a lower IQ than those using other browsers. This fed into the perception that IE users were too uninformed (or stupid!) to switch to a better browser. The press lapped it up. Coverage ensued on the BBC, CNN, NPR, Gawker and The Atlantic, to name a few.
It was all fake. The man behind the hoax later explained, “The main purpose behind this hoax was to create awareness about the incompatibilities of IE6, and not to insult or hurt anyone.”
So why was it so easy to see this was a hoax? Well, the “results” of the study would not pass even a cursory inspection by an expert. The company claimed to have been in business since 2006, but its domain was registered only weeks before the release went out. Wired.com detailed other obvious tells.
Best Accidental Publishing or Best Correction Involving Your Boss
This was a strange one. A website powered by one of Rupert Murdoch’s papers in Australia accidentally published a fake/placeholder story that detailed the marriage of Murdoch to one of his reporters. As Adweek explained at the time:
A cub reporter at one of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspapers accidentally posted placeholder text announcing the publishing magnate’s fourth marriage—in a “shotgun” ceremony, no less.
“Perth Now journalist Ashlee Mullany has married her long-term boyfriend and boss News Ltd. owner Rupert Murdoch in a shotgun wedding yesterday,” wrote reporter Nancy McDonald on the PerthNow website.
Oh what strange fantasies reporters have…
Most Ignorant Request for Correction
Finally, an award to acknowledge that, though we rely on them to help us spot our errors, readers and viewers and listeners are by no means always correct in their requests for correction. This is understandable, and not a reason to ignore feedback and requests from the public. But it seems fitting to end with an item that illustrates how sometimes the people trying to show us the errors of our ways are themselves very mistaken. From an automotive column published on Wheels.ca, a site run by the Toronto Star:
In a recent column, we advised a motorcyclist who experienced a vehicle fire while travelling in New Mexico that he could notify the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of this event since it occurred in the United States.
Subsequently, a reader requested a correction be printed because “the fire occurred in New Mexico, not the U.S.A.”
With all due respect to our reader, New Mexico is indeed a member state of the United States of America.
Congress admitted New Mexico as the 47th state in the Union on Jan. 6, 1912.
As previously noted, this post marks my first major effort for the new Regret the Error blog here at Poynter. The URL RegretTheError.com will soon redirect to this blog, and my archives will be imported.
I’m looking forward to posting more frequently and delivering lots more reporting, tips and analysis. I’m also excited to interact with you, the people who frequent Poynter.org. I’m sure there’s a lot I will learn from you — and I trust you’ll do a great job helping me correct my own errors.
Correction: This post originally said that ITV, the broadcaster cited for “Best Video Error,” was Irish. It is in fact British. It incorrectly referred to The Beatles as the “Fab Five,” instead of the “Fab Four.” It also placed the Advocate newspaper in New Orleans when it is in fact based in Baton Rouge. And Daryl Johnston’s name was misspelled.