Which reporting errors will get one fired? Good luck finding clear standards

Update: A third AP employee was fired for involvement in an erroneous story about Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, the Huffington Post and Politico reported Tuesday. Politico named editor Norman Gomlak as the staffer who was dismissed Monday along with reporter Bob Lewis and editor Dena Potter.

Bob Lewis has the characteristics of the kind of reporter who typically survives a big, though unintentional, mistake.

Yet he, along with an editor, was fired from his job with the Associated Press this week after an egregious error that wrongly accused Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe of lying to federal investigators.

Based on close to a decade of tracking media errors, my (admittedly anecdotal) view is that you’re more likely to keep your job after an error if:

  • The mistake in question was not a willful attempt to mislead, a significant conflict of interest that was deliberately concealed, or a breech of ethical standards related to plagiarism and fabrication.
  • The reporter has been with the organization for a long time, is not a contractor, and previously avoided other major mistakes.
  • The reporter is well respected by colleagues internally and externally.
  • The organization is not sued as a result of the error.
  • The error doesn’t get too much media attention.

By my count, Lewis ticks every box except for the last one: this error got a lot of attention. I know less about Dena Potter, the editor who Huffington Post reports was also fired.

Along with the amount of press coverage on the error, it is, of course, a serious mistake to make this accusation against someone, particularly a public figure running for a major elected position.

It’s not a mistake that should be glossed over, and Lewis and Potter (who appears to have been the primary editor on the piece) should undoubtedly face some form of discipline for the incident.

But firing?

That’s left some puzzled. On Politico, Dylan Byers has quotes from editors at The New York Times and Washington Post expressing their surprise at the decision, and their admiration for Lewis, who publicly admitted his error.

“He made a mistake, but he admitted it,” said Amy Gardner, an editor at the Post who is also friends with Lewis. “There are certain things where we shouldn’t have tolerance — cheating, lying, plagiarism infractions — but a mistake is a different beast from a lie or a stolen bit of work. At what point does a mistake become a non negotiable or fireable offense?”

As Erik Wemple at the Washington Post notes, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the mistake, and they don’t all relate to Lewis or Potter.

But what really happened here? Why did the AP move this story without properly checking it out? What internal imperatives led to the mistake, and will they outlive these dismissals?

There is the error and why it happened. I’m sure AP is diving into that aspect, though as of now they aren’t sharing any details about what went wrong between Lewis, Potter and anyone else involved.

Then there is AP’s response. I, too, am surprised by its decision to fire two employees. I asked AP spokesman Paul Colford if there are any previous examples of AP firing journalists for a similar offense, and will update with any response.

Outside of AP, however, here’s a selected look at some recent firings for errors (other than plagiarism/fabrication):

  • KTVU-TV fired three producers after a famous on-air gaffe regarding the names of the pilots of Asiana Flight 214, which was involved in a crash landing.
  • A sports reporter was fired from a small Louisiana paper after a joking, not-for-publication line he’d inserted in a football game report made it past an editor.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education fired blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley after initially defending  her, over a post that contained assertions without “even the most cursory research.” 

What do those examples have in common? They all were high profile errors, some of which went viral. I’d also note that several involved young or contract reporters. But the high profile nature of the mistakes stands out above all else.

Yet no one was fired at CNN or Fox News over their major Supreme Court gaffes. No one was fired at NPR for their embarrassing “Gabby Giffords is dead” mistake a few years back. No one was fired at NBC or CBS after they misidentified the Navy Yard shooter. Ditto for all the news outlets that mistakenly identified the Newtown shooter.

Reuters columnist and Pulitzer winner David Cay Johnston wasn’t fired after his first column for Reuters was withdrawn when he made incorrect assertions about News Corp. and income taxes. (Like Lewis, he issued a public statement taking full responsibility.)

And no one was fired at AP over its mistaken report that a suspect in the Boston bombings was in custody. This, even though the wire’s executive editor noted that “we took a shellacking, a deserved one,” for the error.

There are also plenty of reporters who don’t even get fired for plagiarism.

So which errors are fireable offenses? The answer right now seems to be: it depends.

A pretty unsatisfying answer. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story included a formatting error that did not show a quote from Erik Wemple’s blog.

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  • TakenAtTheFlood

    One is tempted to also note that no one has as of yet been fired for getting the entire story of why New Orleans flooded in 2005 wrong. Few outside of New Orleans besides those who have taken time to read the National Science Foundation report seem to know or care that it was Army Corps of Engineering incompetence and malfeasance, not overtopping or a really big storm.

    Just sayin’.

  • Patrick Thornton

    I have nothing to really say about what should be a fireable offense. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

    But why is plagiarism this huge sin, but reporting inaccurate facts not? One is crime against another creator, while the other is a crime against readers and the public record at large. To me, nothing is worse than reporting false information. No correction can ever correct the damage that has been done.

    There are two kinds of false reporting, however: Willful and unintentional. Making up facts and quotes is inexcusable. Accidentally misreporting something? Much less of an issue.

    But there is a difference between accidentally reporting the price of the latest iPad due to lazy reporting and what happened here. In this case, we are left with someone who reported a fairly damaging report about a gubernatorial candidate, a falsehood that could change that election, all because he made an assumption about initials. It’s a pretty serious mistake and one that basic reporting techniques would have avoided.

    Now, the question as to whether or not being fired is too serious is another question. I don’t want to be in the position of calling for someone’s job. All I will say is that this is a very serious mistake, but the AP editing process should have caught it. Wemple asks a good question: Why was this allowed to happen. It was a systematic failure for the AP, not the mistake of a few staff members.

  • RichardMorris

    ‘breach’? (bullet point 1)