It used to be, not that long ago, we could sit back and have a nice chuckle – sometimes even a full-throated belly laugh – at a juicy TV or radio blooper, or oddball newspaper or magazine correction.
In fact, for a long time the very first station where I worked as a journalist had an award, given at the year-end holiday party to the employee who’d made the funniest verbal miscue on the air during that year.
Not so much now.
In today’s world, even the most benign human errors committed by journalists are being called “fake news,” a term that has been weaponized by President Trump and others to question the credibility and even the motives of reporters and photojournalists.
As Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute wrote December 18:
Journalists screw up — often. And we have a responsibility to do better. At the same time, quality journalism is geared towards reaching the truth. We cross-check sources. We fact-check claims. We correct our mistakes … . Few other professions are as wedded to corrections as ours is. As a former fact-checker, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times a politician publicly corrected a false claim.
To too many Americans, that just doesn’t matter anymore.
Sure, some of the nation’s biggest and most-reliable news organizations made some significant mistakes this year.
Most recently, ABC News had to correct a report alleging former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had just pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, had been instructed by candidate Donald Trump before the election to contact Russian officials to discuss cooperation. It turns out correspondent Brian Ross was wrong. The contact was made by Flynn after the election, and was not requested by President-elect Trump.
ABC News promptly corrected the error and suspended Ross for four weeks without pay. Ross tweeted that he agreed with the suspension, saying he should be held just as accountable as he attempts to hold the subjects of his investigative reporting.
CNN made two big mistakes. In June, it incorrectly reported that Anthony Scaramucci – before his short-lived stint as White House communications director – was connected to an investigation into the Russian Direct Investment Fund. As soon as CNN realized the error, it corrected the story, apologized to Scaramucci, and Scaramucci accepted that apology. Still, three CNN journalists responsible for the error resigned.
Then, in December, CNN broke what at first seemed to be a blockbuster scoop: It reported WikiLeaks had provided the Trump campaign with login information to access hacked emails harmful to Democrat opponent Hillary Clinton before those emails were leaked to the public. Turns out it was after. Upon learning of the mistake from the reporting of The Washington Post, CNN issued a thorough correction.
Speaking of the Post, it committed an error about the size of the crowd at a presidential campaign-style rally in Florida. Reporter Dave Weigel tweeted a photo suggesting the crowd wasn’t as big as it really was. Well, we all know how President Trump feels about crowd sizes. So the leader of the free world retweeted the photo, demanding an apology. Weigel promptly provided one:
That apparently wasn’t good enough. Mr. Trump then called on Weigel to be fired and many of his supporters among the opinion media’s commentariat pointed to the original tweet as evidence that journalists fabricate stories about the president, a view with which pluralities of respondents agreed in two distinct public opinion polls this fall.
I wholeheartedly agree with something Poynter’s Mantzarlis wrote. “Those [news] outlets that do correct, dedicating time and resources to a fully-fleshed editorial process should be rewarded, not penalized,” he said. Or, as I like to put it, promptly correcting errors and holding those responsible accountable is at the essence of responsible journalism.
For instance, in addition to the responsible ways ABC News, CNN and The Washington Post acted quickly to correct their errors, such protocols are being followed at the local level. When viewers alerted TEGNA-owned KUSA-TV reporter Kyle Clark he had made a mistake in a story, he not only corrected it, he aired what he called “an anatomy” of the error, describing with crystal clear transparency how he made the mistake. His “anatomy” report is must-see TV.
Since it is the holidays, and a time when we all – even those of us who proudly call ourselves journalists – should take some time to rest up for the furtive news cycles that will come in the new year, I’d like to return briefly to the time when we could get a nice laugh out of corrections. I offer two of my favorites of the year.
First, from The Dallas Morning News:
Second, from the Louisville Courier-Journal:
Finally, let’s get back to bloopers. I fully realize that slips of the tongue, or live shots gone horribly wrong, don’t rise to the level of inaccurately accusing the president of the United States of a crime. But can’t we all just enjoy a few moments of schadenfreude in these otherwise very serious times?
Happy – and consistent – correcting in the new year!