Why Journalists Make Mistakes & What We Can Do About Them

The Chicago Tribune’s infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, the 2000 election night calls for Al Gore and then George Bush, a 2004 Providence Journal headline that said, “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking.”

These mistakes reflect the reality that, as hard as we try to get the facts right, sometimes we get them wrong. Our fallibility is the subject of journalist Kathryn Schulz’s new book, “Being Wrong,” which looks at how human error can transform our perceptions of the world and of ourselves.

Curious about how Schulz’s findings relate to journalism, I talked with her about:

  • The need for corrections that address the range of errors journalists make.
  • How the provisional nature and accelerated pace of journalism can lead to error.
  • Reasons news organizations don’t correct most of their mistakes — and what they can learn from them.

Need for corrections that address a spectrum of errors

Misspelled names and typos are among the more basic errors journalists make. But there’s another type of error that is harder to correct: when journalists miss the story completely.

“You can do all the legwork of saying ‘We spelled Kathryn Schulz’s name wrong,’ but that doesn’t get you anywhere near the deep and substantive wrongness that we sometimes commit in the field,” Schulz said by phone. “We have this formalized mechanism for dealing with very small errors, and they’re not necessarily trivial, but we don’t have any mechanism whatsoever for ‘Oops, we blew it, we missed the entire point’ types of errors.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader is an unusual example. The paper ran a clarification in 2004, saying “It has come to our attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the Civil Rights movement. We regret the omission.” And back in 1969, a day after Apollo 11 launched, The New York Times ran a correction saying it retracted a 1920 editorial that had argued space flight was impossible.

It’s not always enough to just write a sentence or two explaining that we’ve erred, says Schulz.

“I think [traditional corrections] are extremely important and I think as a matter of policy, we don’t want some inaccuracy lingering in the public record,” she said. “But I think there’s a little bit of a danger in letting them be the end-all be-all method of how we handle corrections.”

Some in the Fifth Estate have acknowledged their mistakes in other ways. My Poynter colleague Steve Myers recently wrote about what “All Facebook” blogger and founder Nick O’Neill did when he realized that a post he’d written was full of misinformation.

When O’Neill realized the information was wrong, he published a separate post saying, “The logic we used at the time to deduce this was completely off. …” Instead of correcting the post, which had “practically become useless,” O’Neill removed it from the site.

Unpublishing a piece isn’t always the answer, and yet neither is a one-line correction. Scott Maier, who has researched newspaper corrections, said via e-mail that the media would benefit from finding other ways to address the range of errors they make.

“Clearly, the corrections box falls short in setting the record straight,” said Maier, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. “The media needs better mechanisms to make it easier to report errors, large and small.”

Some news organizations and news consumers have been experimenting with correction tracking software. MediaBugs, an open-source, correction-tracking service that launched in April, lets users report and discuss errors they see in San Francisco Bay Area news stories. Creator Scott Rosenberg said MediaBugs users almost always file fact-related errors and that editors have responded well to the reports.

Generally speaking, though, he said most news organizations don’t handle bigger picture errors very well.

“Either the editors decide ‘Hey, we did it this way and we were right, we stand by our story and that’s that,’ ” Rosenberg said via e-mail. “Or, if they do feel they screwed up in some way, they run a follow-up that redefines the story without formally acknowledging that they’re ‘correcting’ anything.”

The real shame, he noted, is that many editors and reporters still believe it’s unprofessional to engage with critics even when criticism against them is reasonable and well-documented.

Provisional nature of journalism leads to error

Traditionally, news organizations have confirmed information and then published it. But these days, many in the Fifth Estate and even some in the Fourth Estate view journalism as a process that involves publishing information and confirming it along the way.

“It’s always been, to some extent, a field that is very much about the provisional. We do the best we can with limited time and we put it out there and we go back and adjust. I think that’s an intrinsic part of the field,” Schulz said. “But with the accelerated pace of journalism, there’s this new culture whereby it’s totally fine to put half-baked ideas up there. Certainly if you’re going to do it, it’s appropriate to flag it as unconfirmed and unverified.”

But that’s at best an imperfect solution, Schulz says, because this accelerated pace can prevent us from seeing the deeper meaning of stories and cause us to miss the point of them entirely.

“The concern is, ‘Oh it’s so hasty there’s going to a be a misidentified source or some similar problem.’ And that’s true, but I also think there’s a deeper issue at work,” Schulz said. “Honestly, when you’re turning stories around that hastily without doing the background work, you don’t have time to think clearly about them. I see this in myself when I’m writing something frantically on deadline. My thought process isn’t as deep and substantive.”

Craig Silverman, who wrote “Regret the Error” and maintains a related blog, explained the impact that bigger picture errors — or “errors of meaning” as they’re sometimes called — can have.

“The ‘big picture’ errors cause a high level of outrage, or exact a higher price in terms of the level of trust in our profession,” he said in an e-mail. “People often feel that these kinds of mistakes reveal the bias and unprofessionalism that exist in journalism.”

Journalists who acknowledge other viewpoints and are humble, empathetic and curious are less likely to make mistakes, Schulz says.

Majority of mistakes aren’t corrected

Maier’s research on corrections indicates that fewer than 2 percent of the factual errors identified by news sources are corrected.

Of the people he surveyed, only one in 10 informed newspapers about errors. Many said they thought the inaccuracies were inconsequential. But some wondered why they should bother reporting errors and assumed newspapers wouldn’t respond. When asked to review stories for accuracy, news sources found factual errors in about every other news and feature story.

“In nearly the same proportion, news sources identified ‘subjective errors’ — information considered technically correct but misleading,” Maier said. “But these errors of meaning were what news sources found most egregious — and measurably damaging to media credibility.”

More than 70 years of studies, he said, have documented that accuracy persistently eludes the press.

“As a news reporter for nearly 20 years, I know from personal experience how easy it is to make mistakes — and how tough it is to admit error,” Maier said. “But this doesn’t let journalists off the hook.”

Acknowledging fallibility helps us learn from our mistakes

Admitting we’re wrong can actually help news consumers trust us more.

“I think we inspire trust by acknowledging our mistakes,” Schulz said. “People who obstinately refuse to admit the fact that they made mistakes just look bad. When someone says, ‘You know what, here’s what I got wrong,’ I think people respond quite positively to that.”

Schulz says in her book that we’re taught to feel shame when we make mistakes. So it makes sense that we would be reluctant to admit we’re wrong.

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Perhaps the way to encourage ownership and admission of errors is to create a newsroom culture that handles mistakes differently.

“We’re always quick to note that we’re human and humans are fallible, but we don’t embrace the act of correction as a way to deal with our inherent fallibility,” said Regret the Error’s Silverman. “There needs to be a change in the way we approach mistakes — less about shame and more about learning from our errors.”

Often, we learn more from being wrong than from being right. The errors we make in the stories we tell as journalists, then, become an important part of the story of our lives.

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and, lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves,” Schulz writes in her book. “Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.”

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